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Full text of "Ai No Kusabi[ Vol 1]"

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Written by 

RFEKO YOSHIHARA 


Illustrations by 

KATSI YII MI CHI HA RA 


English translation by 

Kelly Quine 



Las Angeles 
























Contents 


Chapter 1........ 11 

Chapter 2 . 27 

Chapter 3.. . 51 

Chapter 4 . 71 

Chapter 5 . 99 

Chapter 6 . 131 

Afterword. ....145 














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(Aims) 


AREA-2 

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CASINO 


(MISTRAL 1 


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iMNAGUR A 


AREA a 

(5 AS AN) 


AREA-6 

^JANUSL 


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AEROSPACE PORT 


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OWER 


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A REA 6 

UAWUS} j 


(Mistral' 


// if 

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\/ \\ EPS 










































































































































Chapter 1 


Darkness as far as the eye could see. 

Not a darkness so impenetrable that it crushed 
the senses with an unbearable claustrophobia, but a kind 
of looming shadow transparent enough to reveal the 
outlines of the surrounding environment. 

Dead quiet. 

Programmed for ’‘all-season comfort,” the air 
conditioner barely made a whisper. And yet the wafting 
air currents undulated like shimmering heal waves 
traversing the contours of the uneven dark. They were as 
a heavy, opaque mass of an ice floe descending into the 
depths. 

And then came the faint rustling of sheets from 
the bed in the middle of the room. Shadows wavered 
back and forth, as if buoyed on the ripples of fevered heat 
swelling up from the deep well of silence. The shadows 
writhed left and right, suddenly stiffening in apparent 
rigidity. The occupant of the bed turned over and over, 
wide awake, vexed with a persistent insomnia. 

Or perhaps by the visitation of bad dreams? 

No, that was not it either. Not that he could not 
bed himself down, but theft he could not raise himself up 
again. 

His wrists were firmly bound together above 
Ins head, while his strained arms trembled slightly. He 
clenched his fists, suggesting an exasperated defiance of 





















12 Ai No Kusabi ~ The Space Between 

his confined state. 

But lie must free himself, no matter the cost. 
Though for one possessed of such an indomitable spirit, 
he did not seem to be struggling with any great frenzy of 
effort. 

Perhaps he had given up the fight or had 
grown weary of resistance. Mis expression remained 
inscrutable, though now and then there spilled from his 
lips a low, moaning groan—the sound of a man reaching 
the limits of his perseverance. 

He twisted his captive body to restrain what 
was bursting forth uncontrollable from within him, 
desperately clenching his teeth in order to resist it. 

In such sounds were echoes of litter pathos. At 
the core of these utterances, a listener could almost catch 
the breathings of satiated sighs, permeated with deeply 
lascivious colors and scents. 

Son — of—a — bitch! You — 

The maledictions rose in his mouth, his breath 
shaking, his lips trembling, the mounting frenzy of his 
pounding pulse burning at his throat. As the repeated 
imprecations welled up and oozed away, he knew that 
doing so only ate away at his innards like a powerful 
poison. And yet the curses spilled out of him. 

Goddamn fucking —/ 

Shedding tears without shame or honor, his 
eroded willpower and punished pride tossed to the wind, 
he scolded himself, biting his bottom lip bard enough to 
draw blood. 

No matter how hard he screamed, his cries 
reached no ears but his own. He was struck by the 




























14 


Ai No Kusabi - The Space Between 


realization that if he cried for mercy at the top of his 
lungs, no one would listen. For the room in which he was 
bound, in stark contrast to its resplendent furnishings, 
was nothing if not a bleak jail eel L 

How much time had passed since he'd been 
injected with the aphrodisiac? He'd lost all sense of ti me 
passing. Possibly a mere ten minutes, but it was more 
hkelv that a good hour had passed since the injection. 
His head throbbed to the core of his brain. 

The muscles in his groin tightened to the point 
of pain. Spasms shook him to his fingertips. His breath 
grew ragged and his parched throat cried out tor reliet. 
And then there was his hotly erect member, so aroused 
as to send a dull numbness Seeping through his loins, 
so engorged as to press the veins and capillaries to the 
bursting point. 

His whole body had to climax! He could not 

restrain himself any longer! 

Contorting his body and grinding his thighs 
together only intensified the agony, for his constricted 
organ seemed to want to spend itself in the worst way 
possible. His field of vision misted red. From his nether 
regions, the fevered convulsions surged through him, 
threatening to splinter his spine. 

Restrained by a ring at the base of his cock, he 
couldn't ejaculate. Not at all. “Son of a bitch!" he spat, 
his lips trembling. Barely conscious, he repeated the 
word over and over, “Shit, shit, shit!” 

He knew of no other way to escape the searing 
torture that even breathing had become. 

That was when the door to the room slid open. 


STRA NGER 


15 


right to left. Preoccupied with the anguish consuming 

him to the core* he didn t notice the Man entering the 
room. 

The Man approached the Captive with careful 
steps. He carried himself with a supple grace, the thick 
carpet itself absorbing any audible evidence of his 
presence. Wordlessly he touched a switch by the bed. 

The room at once filled with soft light. Having 
been held prisoner in darkness, the gentle brightness all 
but blinded the Captive. Even when narrowing his eyes, 

it took him a long minute to become accustomed to the 
light. 

He took in the striking countenance of a 
beautiful yet merciless Man who seemed not to possess 
a speck of vulnerability, and tears sprang to his eyes. I lis 
willpower and endurance, stretched now to the breaking 
point, suddenly sagged in the face of the Man. 

“And how are we doing? Holding up well 
enough?” 

The Man's voice was several degrees colder 
than his indifferent mien suggested. A listener could not 
help but be persuaded by the particular firmness in his 
voice, a firmness that imparted the harshness of someone 
we 11-accustomed to giving orders, 

“Enough alreadyr the Captive implored, 
twisting his body, choking back tears. 

And yet the Man moved not an eyebrow. “1 
offered you the chance to lake your best shot with any of 
the others. I gave you no leave to go and mount up some 
bitch!” 

There was a disturbing discrepancy between the 


16 Ai No Kusabi — The Space Between 

nonchalant tone of his voice and his eyes, which were 
cold as death. "At the very least, you knew that Mimea 
was espoused, did you not? Even Raoul is casting 
aspersions, saying you've gone and ruined everything. 

These are your just desserts. 1 ' 

The Captive could only lie there, catching his 
breath in response to the deliberate, yet harsh, words 
flung his way. 

"Did your vanity really convince you that you 
could win Mimea over? That being the case, even if you 
were simply playing Casanova, you surely knew that 
there arc rules of the game that must be respected?" 

Behind the Man, a woman’s shrill voice shot 
through the room, "it wasnk a game!" 

The Captive shrank back, as if stung by the 
snap of her voice. His eyes widened in surprise, seeing 
Mimea’s face exposed to the world after so many 
clandestine trysts. 

“She insisted on meeting you, and she wouldn’t 
take no for an answer. Well, it's said that love is blind, 
but what the two of you don't seem to understand is that 
this is not your decision to make. So let’s hear it straight 

from the horse's mouth," 

Hear what? the Captive's quavering eyes asked 
silently, vaguely beginning to anticipate what the man 
was going to say next. 

“/'he relationship was never real —that is what 
he said. If not Mimea. then any warm body would 
have sufficed. He was intrigued only by the body being 
female 

At that moment, another sensation crept up the 





STRANGER 


17 


Captive’s spine. Not the arousing spasms of pleasure, 
bui something more akin a cold, dark despair. 

“As long as he was given an unoccupied pussy 
in which to quench his hoi, throbbing manhood, it did 
not matter whose it was. Isn't that what you said?” 

The Man would not be challenged. The threats 
implicit in the undercurrents of his voice overwhelmed 
the senses. The Captive’s cheeks stiffened, and in that 
frozen state he gulped for breath and swallowed, bard. 

But before he could will his trembling lips to 
respond, the woman spoke up. “ r l hat’s a lie! You’re all 
ganging up on us, trying to destroy our relationship!” 
She hardened her voice and glared reproachfully at the 
Man, To Mimea, the person who could shackle her lover 
as he pleased was more a rival for her affections than a 
symbol of ultimate authority. 

“Do you know who Raoul chose as my partner? 
Jena! Supposedly because he’s got good genes The 
wav her words trembled and trailed off indicated the 
desperate nature of her emotions. “I'll have none of 
it! His perverted nature is written all over his face. The 
thought of being held by him . . . of having a child by 
him ,,. makes me sick!" 

As a woman this was something her pride 
would not allow, and yet almost in the same breath she 
addressed i he Captive, with a certain pained affection. 
"You’re different from other people, aren't you? You 
love only me, don’t you?” 

But the Captive didn't hear the half of what she 
said. It took a his effort simply to keep from groaning 
aloud, contorting his body in order to stave off the 






IK 


Ai No Kusabi - The Space Between 


recognition of that which had been thrusting itself into 
the conversation this whole time. The only thing he 
salvaged from Mi men’s words was that the exposure of 
his covert meetings with her would bring down censure 
upon her head. 

Back when their secret became public, his mates j 
had joined in the castigations. “We've got no use for a 
chap who falls for a slumming Academy-manufactured 

princess. ” 1 

Of Mimea it was said: “She’s no judge of men. 
falling for (rash like dial." Such were the manner of 
words spoken behind her back. The envied product of 
the Academy on the one hand, and himself on the other: 
bom and raised among the k dregs. 1 

But Mimea knew. Beneath the shadows of the j 
ceaseless ridicule, behind the scourging hands of public 
censure and the daggers of reproachful looks, one and all 
had acutely realized what a rare specimen he was. 

Despite the merits of his lineage (or the lack 1 
thereof), despite the beauty of his countenance (or 
the lack thereof), despite his criminal record (or the 
lack thereof) the uniqueness of his presence alone 
bewitched people. For good or ill, that primal sense of 
self that up until then he’d believed had been etched in 
stone had been crushed without mercy. I 

Mimea hod seen the end from the beginning: 
the day-to-day deceptions keeping them apart, the 
affectations of territoriality, the souls glittering beneath 
the bell jar. 

Amongst all her colleagues he was the most 
beautiful of all. None of the flagrant and malicious 




STRANGER 


19 


gossip, o) the dark jealousies, or the insidious behavior 
goi under his skin. His speech and conduct remained 
uncivilized in the extreme and his utterly uncooperative 
spirit never allowed him to go along just to get along. 
Nevertheless, his actions were not without meaning. He 
atone achieved a particular kind of “purity.” 

Which was why Mimea wanted him, no matter 
what. Although both birds in a cage, she wanted to 
believe (hat their pairing might lead to something 
completely new. 

That was why she reached out to him. why she 
teased him with kisses, threw herself into his embrace, 
and so ardently desired to fuse their bodies as one. Thus 
would he become hers and hers alone. 

Such had been the brittle, naive dreams she 
dreamed. 

Despite his outwardly blunt and curt behavior, 
up until a few days ago he had always looked at her with 
eyes softer than any other. Now, however, he turned his 
taco away with no offer of explanation. Fo Mimea. this 
burden was the hardest to bear. His silence kindled in her 
an inexpressible anxiety. 

“Why won’t you say anything?” 

She now had to confront reality: he didn’t 
w ish to see her. What was the value of a life bound by 
invisible chains? A life compelled— 

The jumble of thoughts pained her heart. Unable 
to bear it any longer, she cried out almost hysterically. 
“Why won't you look at me? Say something, please!” 

She raised her eyebrows and pursed her red lips, 
knowing he was unlikely to spare her even a glance. In 









20 


Ai No Kusabi - The Space Between 


one moment, she had been shown the ugliness of an 
unimaginable betrayal, illustrated in the turned back of 
the Captive who would not even rise to defend himself 
with a man’s typical bluster. She could not speak, for all 
her anger—such was the fire in her eyes. 

Ah. this is the end. the Captive thought in his 

heart. 

“Coward!” Mimea reviled him, her voice almost 
becoming a scream. 

With that came a rending, tearing sensation in 
his back, like being flogged with a nail-studded whip. 
He bit down on his lip all the harder. Brine oozed from 
parted teeth, stinging his throat as if wrapping it in 
thorns, the pain twining together with the scorching heat 
of the poison burning in his chest. His limbs stiffened. It 
was either a moan or a sobbing groan that emerged from 
his locked jaws. 

Even he hardly knew the difference. 

Standing at his back, Mimea turned away, her 
lips trembling. 

“And perhaps you as well have learned a thing 
or two?” 

Having assured himself that Mimea was moving 
with all due haste toward the door, the Man sat down on 
the edge of the bed. He was taking his time. 

“Well, this conclusion was entirely obvious from 
the beginning,” lie murmured smoothly. He stripped off 
the blankets, revealing a naked body that was still in the 
process of growing into an adult. The supple symmetry 
in the Captive’s maturing limbs and the manner in which 
Ids body writhed in the agonies of pleasure only worked 














STRANGER 


21 


to arouse the Man's sadism. 

The Man's gaze crawled across the Captive’s 
body- His cold and placid eyes reflected no heightened 
passion, no racing pulse. Only when the Man’s cruel 
gaze fell between the Captive's thighs did his face 
darken in the slightest. 

The hard, aroused crown of the Captive’s 
manhood cried out to his tormentor. I want to come! Let 
me climax! 

“You want to come?” the Man whispered, in a 
coaxing voice. 

The Captive's lips trembled as he caught his 
breath, his watering eyes pleading for him. He forced 
himself to nod stiffly, repeatedly. 

The Captive took a deep breath as the Man 
deftly parted his knees. He believed at long last he was 
about to be released from this maddening torture. 

However, as if to scorn such rash optimism, with 
not so much as glance at his swollen, ripened cock, the 
Man exposed the underside of the Captive's left thigh 
and with his finger gently stroked iIte valley dividing the 
two hillocks. 

With a groan, the Captive’s eyes rolled back in 
his head. 

“You enjoyed Mimea's pleasures without my 
leave. Did you really believe that you could wrap up 
everything so cleanly after it was made known, just like 
that?” 

For the first time, a real shadow of fear clouded 
the Captive's eyes. 

As always, the Man was the most serene of 










22 


Ai No Kusabi The Space Between 


masters, lo the point of appearing excessively frigid. 
But beneath the facade of this man, whose voice never 
wavered in the slightest, hid the face of a hard and 
relentless taskmaster. The Captive knew this better than 
any. 

Which is why, at this juncture, he did not throw 
himself at the man's mercy, pleading “Why?" 

When his relationship with Mimca had been 
revealed to the Man, he'd been the defiant one. He'd 
cuckolded her consort and lost himself in the affair that 
ensued. It was something anyone could have done, but 
that was not why he did it. 

He loved Mimea. Her glamorous appearance. 
Her pure and cultivated haughtiness. Her ignorance ot 
the real world, into which she never ventured beyond her 
assigned place in life. The softness of her skin wherever 
he touched her. He loved everything about her. 

She held no prejudices toward him the way 
others did. She was his only companion. She accepted 
all of his maverick qualities at face value, and him as 
a mere human being. And yet he knew that there was 
a dark side to their brief “honeymoon" together, and 
whenever they spoke to each other as “lovers" . . . and 
that was the secret thrill he got from betraying the Man. 

It was because the Captive had found himself 
in a gilded cage he had never desired. For a feral child 
who’d never stooped to lick another's boots, who'd 
known nothing but his own hard-earned self-respect, that 
uncontrollable sense of claustrophobia was suffocating 
him. 

tn this state, things could only go from bad to 



STRANGER 


23 


worse. He was chatting at the bit, rotting from the inside 
out, and it was killing him. Casting his bruised pride to 
the wind and kissing up to the Man would destroy it 
once and for all. 

That’s why, even when the moment of truth 
came, he took it lightly. That made his sense of guilt 
toward the Man—and all the more so toward Mimea— 
that much more intense. 

But now. Now, fear touched his heart. 

“With Mimea—it was—we did it only once.” 

He knew that the Man would never fall for such 
a clumsy excuse, but he also knew, with a certain sense of 
dread, that he had to offer some sort of rationalization, 

“One time is as good as a hundred, as far as I 
am concerned. That you held her in your arms is reason 
enough. 1 ' 

The ball o the Man’s finger crept teasingly 
toward his anus. The Captive jerked. Not only had 
his penis ripened to an oozing plumpness from such 
paroxysms of pleasure, but the hidden flower of his 
bowels as well. That which under ordinary circumstances 
opened its petals only to persistent foreplay had already 
become enchanted. 

As if to drive home the reality of its promiscuous 
condition, the Man skimmed the folds of the flower with 
his fingertips. “You like it the best here, like this 

No! 

But his body betrayed the Captive before the 
words could emerge from his throat. 

The realization that he was powerless to restrain 
himself only left him more afraid. Cioosebumps erupted 






24 


Ai No Kusabi - The Space Between 


wherever his flesh succumbed to the raining pins and 
needles of pleasure. 

Slowly, the Man penetrated him with his finger, 
triggering provocative undulations in the Captive’s 
body. The sensation aroused a guttural groan as his loins 
twisted and writhed uncontrollably. 

“What’s this? Trying to salvage your ego even 
now? How about giving us a good yelp for a change?” 

The Man's voice possessed the stillness of 
permafrost, as far removed from his normal coolness 
as could be imagined. Indeed, such imaginings alone 
left the Captive speechless with fear. With every turn 
of the Man's lasciviously worming finger, the chronic 
throbbing contracted further, producing an intense and 
spreading numbness throughout his body. 

Half-unconsciously the Captive tightened his 
sphincter. But instead of repelling the invasion of the 
foreign object, his body gripped the Man’s digit more 
tightly, drawing it deeply inside him with increasing 
pleasure. And as he did so, the quivering in his loins 
began to mount slowly with a shameless, if charming 
desperation. 

And vet... 

w 

| learly not even that was sufficient for the Man, 
who licked his earlobe and murmured in his ear, “Yes, 
that’s a good boy.” 

"Hi Hi —" trilled the Captive. ’! here was a small 
scream, and his back arched. The whirlpool of tiny, 
tingling teeth gnawing at his spine suddenly bared their 
fangs and pierced the top of his skull. His outstretched 
arms and strained legs jerked and convulsed. 



STRANGER 


25 


With a vengeance the Man jammed his finger 
deeper, causing fiery darts to scorch the insides of the 
Captive’s eyelids. He caught his breath, feeling as if 
every blood vessel in his body was about to burst. Not 
only his swollen cock, but his painfully erect nipples as 
well. 

He could have escaped the truly unbearable 
agony by fainting, but the Man forced him to pant 
laboriously for air, not letting him come. Bringing the 
bud of his anus to such effulgent bloom, the Man bound 
him to consciousness with lust, toying with his nether 
parts without respite. 

M Ahhhh ,., haaaa ... hnnrmn 

The Captive’s trembling lips shook with ragged 
breaths that pulsed in his throat. His hips heaved 
violently, yet drew forth only a premature, glistening 
thread, and with it not a single promise of release. 

Aaaaargh .. . /” 

With every half-cry that escaped his throat, cries 
approaching a scream, his body burned all the way down 
to the tip of his rod's honeyed mouth. Such was the 
unimaginable menace in the Man’s practiced foreplay. 

The Man toyed mercilessly with the Captive’s 
piercingly hard nipples, making him keen, lie brought 
forth the naked head of the Captive’s shuddering stamen 
to caress it with his fingertips, making the Captive howl. 
His anus having tightly swallowed one finger, the Man 
twisted in a second, forcing it wider, 

“ Hiii—yoaa—r 

As tears streamed down his face, the Captive 
gasped, pleading in ragged shards of language. “Enough 





26 


Ai No Kusabi - The Space Between 

. . * no more . . . won '(... do . again . . . ahhhT 

He was begging, pleading for forgiveness. Not 
again. Never again. He d never do it again! 

Mercy! 

The earnest words rose again and again as if in 
a fevered delirium from his benumbed, frozen mouth. 
The Man once again whispered into his ear. “I'll let you 
come. As often as you wish. Until you regret that you 
ever held Mimea in your arms, 1 ' 

And then with unequalled, frigid calmness, he 
pronounced the verdict, one imbued with a maddening 
darkness: “You are my pet. Know this to the marrow of 
your bones.” 

The Man's upturned blue eyes were so 
unimaginably beautiful that they could make anybody 
tremble with awe. In this moment, however, they also 
glimmered with an icy lire perhaps revealing the fury 
of his wounded pride, or rather, a manifestation of his 
uncontrollable obsession. 

It did not matter which of these was correct. 
For the Man was aware that at the base of his haughty 
convictions, there swirled a dark whirlpool of twisted 
jealousy towards Mimea. 



Chapter 2 


Midas. Sin city. A Caligula scorning the silent, 
tranquil passing of the midnight hours. 

Or perhaps a Mephistopheles more evil than 
any conniving sovereign. Or an embodied Shangri-La 
hiking up the hems of her layered, neon-bright kimono, 
seducing souls while wanton laughter spilled from the 
comers of her mouth. 

Midas’ rotting will and heart and intellect 
collected hither and yon in stagnating pools and ruled 
without question over a darkness beholden to no one. 

For all these reasons it was called the Midas 
Pleasure Quarters. The infamous city was an urban 
satellite of the central metropolis of Tanagura, itself 
ruled by Lambda 3Q>0, the giant mainframe known as 
“Jupiter.’ Its virtual precincts served up every imaginable 
mode of amusement, answering to the wants and needs 
of mortal flesh. There one could find casinos, bars, 
brothels, and all facets of the entertainment industry-. 

Within the boundaries of Midas, morals and 
taboos did not exist. Only the night filled with salacious, 
suspicious, and patronising glitz. Here, the hud and 
garish hours wasted away until the dawn. 

But beneath its dazzling outward appearance 
hid another, more repulsive face: the grotesque visage of 
Midas supping at an endless banquet table of pleasure, 
where unfettered basic instincts entwined with human 








28 


Ai No Kusabi - The Space Between 


desire stripped bare. 

The boundlessly promiscuous and enticing 
lightbeams tloated on the darkness, and at the foot of 
these gigantic, fluorescing bug zappers, the jam-packed 
hordes bathed in the sluggish, lukewarm breezes. The 
clinging breath of Midas coiling about a man s listless 
limbs was nothing if not an aphrodisiac, numbing 
rationality and turning the heart and mind to jelly. 

But heading across the overpasses away 
from the two concentric rings that formed the core oi 
Midas Area 1 (Lhassa) and Area 2 (Flare)- these 
besotted sensations faded. In the time it took to" the cold 
night air to dissipate them, the urban landscape changed 

completely. ' 

The outskirts of Midas. Special Autonomous 

Area 9. C'erex. The scorned “Crotch of Midas." The 
slums. Even the proprietors of the Pleasure Quarters 
furrowed their brows in distaste and never broached its 
boundaries. 

There were no hard, high walls isolating it from 
the adjoining areas, no interdicting lasers preventing 
intrusion or trespass. Nevertheless, the avenues 
separating here from there marked an abrupt change in 

scenery obvious to all but the blind. 

No signs of human habitation could be seen on 
the rubble and trash-strewn streets. Needless to say, the 
flood of garish neon staining the Midas nights was a 
world away, setting the crumbing walls of ihe buildings 

alight with a dirty brown afterglow. 

Its odd and dissolute appearance suggested that 
the indifferent passing of lime had suddenly retracted 


STRA MGER 


29 


upon itself, warping past and future in an unexpected 
direction. 

As did the relentless enthusiasm erupting from 
the Pleasure Quarters. As did the coquettish voices, 
smothered with flattery, scattered on the wind. Nothing 
reached this wasteland except in surrender to the 
confusion of ominous and ghastly colors. 

Ceres was home to the night soil left behind in 
the dust of the era. Any determination to clean out the 
steaming piles had long since exhausted itself. And any 
capacity for self-renunciation and purification that could 
have resurrected the community as a community had 
died long ago. 

I he only sound reaching the ears were the 
occasional stirrings of deeply-held resentments and 
depraved sighs, day and night sowing the stench of rot 
and death. Nothing could thrive in this poisoned ground, 
not people and not a ciiy. Growing accustomed to the 
constant drizzle of scorn, a man 's dreams rotted away 
and died in the slums. 

To the citizens of Ceres, the central metropolis 
of Tanagura (where everything was and would be 
shipshape to the end of time) was a long, long way 
away. An unimaginably different world. Here they 
were not even permitted to lick the boots of Midas, that 
vainglorious despot of the night. 

! bey lived in Ceres with the painful realities of 
the present and the ghoslly dreams of the wrecked past. 
No one ever promised them a rose garden. 

That day the heavy leaden clouds moved 







30 


Ai No Kusabi The Space Between 


through the skies with an unexpected quickness. The 
weather somehow held throughout the morning, turning 
bad just past noon. In the space often minutes, a sudden 
downpour became a violent thunderstorm. 

The rain drummed incessantly on the ground 
as if to pound the slums themselves out of existence. 
The drains in the garbage-laden streets clogged and 
overflowed. With nowhere else to go. the runoff grew 
into a rampaging river that washed everything away 
with it. 


Then came the night. 

Having wrecked its mayhem and retreated, the 
storm left behind a sky shot through w ith stars. On this 
night alone the typically dull darkness was strangely, 
and refreshingly, clear. 

The night’s ambience alone proved refreshing. 
In honor of the afternoon’s downpour, the youth of the 
slums had whiled away the hours isolated in their hovels. 
Now they busily vented all that stored up heat. 

Males poured down the alcohol and rushed 
through obligatory bouts of sex abetted by further 
helpings of drugs, There was nothing at all unusual 
about gangbangers prowling this cramped territory', 
knocking heads and causing trouble. 

The balance of power in Area 9 changed with 
the seasons. Which was to say, despite the generous 
application of herbicide, some new species of weed 
would eventually spring to life after the rains went away. 
Yet for the most part they possessed so little spit and lire 
that even gossip about coups and internal rivalries was 


STRANGER 


31 


rarely taken seriously. These gang conflicts could hardly 
be said to constitute a “rivalry' of warlords,” 

I The place stunk to high heaven with rogue males 

and beasts ol burden, but no one had the strength of 
personality to drag them into line and begin to conquer. 
In the end. however, there was no denying these ongoing 
turf wars, whose violence could in large part be blamed 
lor the deterioration of public order in the slums. 

I Recently, the struggle for supremacy in Area 

9 had arisen between Jocks (one of the new breed of 

| ‘‘Hyper Kids”), and Mad Dog Maddox, fighting to retain 
his lost power base. It was said that this constituted a 
battle between the old and new' regimes, and all the 
while, powerful third parties hung back in the shadows, 
waiting for the right moment to strike. 

I It was in this fashion that, for almost four years, 

rather than putting their own lives and credibility on the 
line and simply taking what they wanted for themselves, 
it was the scrambling after scraps—the ensuring of 
mutual restraint through mutual spinelessness—that had 
become common practice. 

: Back in the day, Bison had run the Area 9 free 

fire zone, also known as “Hot Crack.” But at the pinnacle 
ol their success they abruptly disbanded, and a successor 
had not since been decided upon. 

| Now it came down to either Jeeks or Maddox. 

“All that remains is the timing of the coup de 
grace," boasted the big mouths. But to pull that off, 
one decisive element was lacking: a strength of will 
that would charm followers and multiply the collective 





32 


Ai No Kusabi I he Space Between 


power of their individual strengths. 

The slums had once known a man possessed of 
such extraordinary charisma. The boy left the Guardian 
foster center at the age of thirteen with no special 
position or privileges, yet in a surprisingly short time 
he'd made a name for himself in the slums. 

It was not because of his striking appearance. 
Nor did he curry favor needlessly, nor was he quick to 
bend the knee, nor was his trust easily earned. Everybody 
who knew him agreed that it was because of the superior 
nature of his personality that belied his mere thirteen 

years. 1 

“He’s a regular Varja," they said, “Beholding to 
no one." * 

All of the residents of Midas knew of the 
mythical beast Varja, also known as Ragon, demon 
god of the underworld, or Grendei. the soul destroyer. 
A beast of prey that could crush a limb to the bone with 
a single chomp of its steel jaws and razor-sharp fangs. A 
disdainful chimera taking to the air with the four wings 
on its back, its coat glowing with a bewitching black 
luster. 

On one hand, he was compared to that Varja 
because of his jet-black hair and obsidian eyes, unique 
even in the slums that scorned him as a mongrel and a 
half-breed. 

On the other, it was due to the calculated ferocity 
that could never be imagined behind such a delicate 
appearance. I f “survival of the fittest" was the law of the 
jungle, then the weak seeking out the patronage of the 
strong and drawing close to them was a particular quirk 


STRANGER 


33 


of human behavior. 

However, he took no notice of those sucking up 
and lavishing meaningless compliments upon him. And 
though well connected, he demanded no particular quid 
pro quo in return. It was because he always had at his 
side a “pairing partner,” someone who could be called 
his "better half," It was no exaggeration to say that he 
had eyes for none other than that youth. 

Assuming that a person matures over the years 
as the trials of life accumulate, there are also those 
whose superior character yields neither to age nor 
gender. Every move lie made was studied with an almost 
blatant inlerest and a curiosity, and yet, he gave all this 
attention little thought in the course of his day-to-day 
life. 

Vet there was neither restraint nor mercy in the 
hand that so modestly brushed away the sparks alighting 
on his own person. Even so, the circle of those enchanted 
by his charisma continued to expand, and with him 
commanding the troops, it was only logical that Bison 
should have risen suddenly to prominence, 

But then that dav. Like a boh out of the blue. 
Bison disintegrated in mid-air. The slums looked on in 
disbelief, speechless with amazement. Gone, just like 

that. 

There were no two ways about it. The word 
went forth lhat Riki had retired from Bison. 

Why? What were the reasons? 

An extraordinary shock raced through the slums, 
accompanied by a flurry ot obscenities and exaggerated 
rumors masquerading as conjecture: The truth of Bison’s 






Ai No Kosabi The Space Between 



dissolution remained wrapped in mystery. ^ | 

Only he could lead them. Regardless of the truth 

behind Bison's demise. Bison lacked Riki’s fierce center 
of gravity and simply ceased to be. And so Bison all but 
went extinct, leaving only garish urban folklore behind 

in its wake. 

Almost four years had passed since then. 

The original Bison members had steadily 
reestablished themselves in their own way (though it d 
be hard to say they’d done a good job of it), and the 

neighborhood had grown restless. 

Naturally, over these four years a great number 
of pretenders had attempted to win them over and jack 
up the street cred of their own groups. Bison may have 
dissolved, but its strong presence continued to be felt, 
and young bloods eager to grasp even the tiniest shaie ol 
that glory made transparent attempts to win them over. 

While there were those who both publicly and 
privately proclaimed themselves remnants of the Bison 
fringe. Riki’s old partner and the rest of the Bison 
veterans resisted the urge, no matter how solicitous 
the flattery became. Alter tasting the thrill ol standing 
shoulder to shoulder with Riki and running with his 

pack, nothing could take his place. 

The same way standing water goes bad, the 

qualities of a conflict changed with time. 1 hose who 
couldn’t ride the rising tide of the era were destined to 

fall behind and kiss somebody elsc’s ass. 

Seen in that light, ihe choice of the former Bison 
members was a heartfelt one. i heir past glories had been 


STRANGER 


35 


cruelly reduced to rubble. Avoiding the humiliation 
of becoming somebody else's bitch could at least be 
counted as an accomplishment. 

And yet now there emerged those who held 
their presence in pure contempt. Clinging to the ultra- 
right wing were .leeks and Maddox. Jeeks of the Hyper 
Kids and Mad Dog Maddox. No matter how much they 
extended their power and influence into the slums, other 
groups gave them a cold shoulder. 

"They're not anything like Bison!” 

“Posers! Nothing but pretenders!” 

Calling them out and drawing the comparison 
to Bison— always the same, loathsome, knee-jerk 
reaction. 

Bison. Bison! Bison! 

Undoubtedly, those who saw themselves as the 
two power brokers of the slums had gotten led up with 
the sound of that name. They could take no pride in 
facing ofl against the pretensions of a legend that was 
now a shadow of what it used to be. And that was why 
they promised once and for all that they would smash 
the rotting remains of the name “Bison" and everything 
associated with it. 

The two circling moons had never been so 
beautiful, dyeing the night sky in bright relief. 

“Haa — haa — haa —” 

Panting, Kirie pressed his face against a 
crumbling wall in a vacant back alley and took a long. 














36 


Ai No Kusabi — The Space Between 


hard breath. He’d left his room and come to the usual 
gathering spot, intending to hook up with his mates. So 

what the hell was going on? 

Sons of bitches! Bunch of dirty, low down— 

The surprise attack had come out of nowhere. 
He’d somehow parried the first blow, and after that he’d 
taken off, running tike crazy, trying to shake off his 
pursuers. Now, he didn't have the slightest idea where 

he was. 

Shit! 

His heart pounded like a drum and the sweat 
streamed off of him. All that escaped the iron trap of his 
mouth were the muffled bellows ot rage. 

Shit! Shit! Shit! 4 

Cussing was the only thing he could do in 
his current state of mind. Kirie wiped away the sweat 
coursing down his forehead. It was then, as he surveyed 
his surroundings, that a dot of red flame unexpectedly 
popped up in the darkness at the far reach of his I 

eyesight. 1 

He ducked his head instinctively, startled. As he I 

did. he cast a quick glance beyond the wall and dimly 
observed someone sitting on the rubble of the destroyed I 
building opposite. The corroded alleyway was painted in j 
the shades ofthe night, lit up only by the precarious blue | 
light ofthe two moons turning overhead. I 

The dot of red light was probably from a lit 
cigarette. What the hell was that guy thinking, lighting | 
up in a place like this? As he raised his eyebrow's at the 
question, the sound of approaching footsteps echoed j 
down the alleyway. 























38 Ai No Kusabi - The Space Between I 

’‘He there?” 1| 

“Naw. Looks like he took off.” I 

“I told you we shouldn’t have pussy-footed 
around like that. We should have gone straight at him.” fl 
“The hell you say? That little bastard was fast.” 
The high register of their voices suggested boys 
young enough that their voices hadn't broken yet. The 
shadowy figures blustered on irritatedly. 

“What are we gonna do now’? He saw' us.” 

The atmosphere surrounding them was thick 

with fear and loathing. S 

Kirie was outnumbered. If he was discovered 
here, he had about a one-in-ten odds of emerging without 
considerable battle damage. Cognizant of the realities 
around him, he sank down further into the darkness, 
only now managing to catch his breath. ■ 

“Big deal. We lit a fire under his ass. That should 
be good enough, huh? No second guessing ourselves 
next time. We’ll beat the shit out of him.” I 

Kirie curled up his fists and ground his 
teeth together at the sound of these chest-thumping 
declarations. Smart-ass kids. Kirie himself was a third- 
year colony-dwelling kid, but the word on the street said 
that the members of the Jeeks gang were all teenagers 
less than fifteen years old. In other words, they were 
fearless kids only beginning to accustom themselves to 
the differences between life at the foster center and life 

in the slums, |H 

For the same reasons. Bison in its heyday had 
been even more precocious and extreme than Jeeks. At 
the age of thirteen, whether they liked it or not, the Bison 


STRANGER 


39 


kids were cut loose from Guardian. Left to their own 
devices, they had no choice but to get their shit together, 
and fast. 

It was for that reason alone that the gang’s 
surviving members had become for Jeeks a constant 
pain in the ass. He never passed up the opportunity to 
diss the revived Bison as a pale imitation of its former 
sell, because as long as Bison existed, everything Jeeks 
did would be compared to that “graven image.” 

That Riki was no fallen idol only made things 
worse. Bowing out on an unbroken winning streak made 
him a ghost with references and a resume. 

But regardless of what had been then, just 
hanging with Bison these days meant a knife in the back 
in a dark alley, and Kirie was getting fed up with the 
current state of affairs. Regardless, he knew that making 
lame excuses about the comer he’d painted himself into 
was just spinning his wheels. 

The kids that hung with Jeeks weren’t going to 
rest easy until they'd tom out anybody associated with 
Bison by the roots. 

One of the hot-headed Jeeks kids finally noticed 
the guy lighting up on top of the pile of bricks. “Hey, 
motherfucker! What you doing over there?” 

The insolence and arrogance in the question 
were the kid's way of venting the irritation over letting 
his previous prey escape. But the answer was not what 
he expected. 

[; “This is no place for kids to be loitering at all 
hours of the night. So piss off and run along home." 

The guy responded unexpectedly in a 



40 


Ai No Kusabi The Space Between 


commanding tone of voice, and beneath its sportive tone 
was an edge that must have sounded all the more barbed 
to these fearless kids. Kirie found himself growling I 
under his breath. “Some kind of idiot, that guy is." I 

He knew the kids there in front of him ran with 
Jeeks. If this guy was looking to pick a fight with them, 
then he must have brass ones the size of boat anchors. If 
not, he was the biggest fool on the planet. I 

“If you knew who you was talking to. old 
man, you'd think twice about opening that big mouth 
of yours," The kid went on. trying to salve his bruised 
honor as a member of the Jeeks gang, “If you don't, then 
we'd be happy to teach you. Try not to wet yourself.'' 
Obviously feeling he'd been dissed, the kid was going 
to give back twice what he was given. “It’s too late to go 
crying to mama.” 

They were determined now to get it on with 
him. Looking to blow off some steam, the guy must have 
seemed the perfect target. “Yeah, that's right. You're 
talking to the Jeeks gang,” 

“Jeeks?” the guy shot back w ith a lack of affect 
that bordered on disappointment. “Sorry, don't know 
him. Is lie the one who changes your nappies every 
night, then?” 1 

Even sans the sarcasm, his manner of speaking 
suggested this was something other than a bad joke, and 
Kirie could not but gape at him. He's gotta be wrong in 
the head , he thought, the words nearly coming out in a 
gasp of disbelief. 1 

“You don't know? You don’t know the Jeeks 
gang? Just how stupid are you?" 


STRANGER 


41 


“It's okay. If he doesn't know' then we’l] teach him." 

"Damn straight. Within an inch of his fucking life.” 

The kids had already gotten their hackles up. 

And yet the guy spoke again. “You think you 
know the slums. This is different.” He was taking things 
at his own pace, right up to the end. 

I “Come on down, old man. We re gonna put a 

plug in that mouth of yours and tear you a new one.” 

“Okay, okay. Let s play, then. Time’s a-wasting.” 
The guy descended from the pile of rubble. 

A laser knife lore through the darkness. Instead 
of staggering backwards in a panic, he nimbly stepped 
aside, grabbed the kid's slashing arm and delivered a 
solid blow in return. Then, catching the kid off balance, 

he mercilessly slammed a roundhouse kick against his 
body. 

A strange shadow fell around them. No way. 
Sheer amazement. No fucking way! They must be 
dreaming. 

It wasn't simply a difference in physical 
constitutions, I hat kind of precise parry and attack 
caught everybody by surprise. I hcy staggered back and 
gaped. The "Jeeks” way of doing things was to track 
down and corner their prey, then gang up and hit where 
it was weakest. They didn't dawdle. They made up tor 
their physical shortcomings with numbers and delivered 
the pain, so that the one pleading for mercy, blubbering 
like a baby, crawling away a misshapen wreck, was 
always the prey. 

But this well-practiced game plan had been 
easily turned around by a single guy— 



42 Ai No Kusabi - The Space Between 

Draped in the darkness, Kirie murmured to 

himself. "Holy freaking cow.” 

’‘An eye for an eye, that’s ihe law of the slums. 

And while we're at it. the same thing goes for muscle 
and bone.” The guy nonchalantly stepped into the light 
of the dingy street!amp, as if stepping out of the dark 

wings and into the spotlight. 

‘it’s the same to me either way. If you plan on 

running away, now's the time. He slightly curled the 
comers of his mouth. “Otherwise, how about we go at it 
until we’re hacking up blood?” he asked, laughing with 

gay abandon. 1 

% 

Friday night. 

An unusual moon rainbow arced across the sky 
of the deep, still night. In a room in the broken-down 
building they used as their sate house and headquarters, 
the now legendary members of Bison idled away the 

long and tedious hours. 1I 

Once upon a time, these ruffians had made 

names for themselves, running wild in the slums. 

turning the place upside down. Bui for the time being 

they’d reformed, no longer baring tooth and claw to 

every provocation. Or at least that was how the casual 

onlooker now perceived them. 

The employment rate was miserable for the kids 

who spent morning and night pursuing gang rivalries, 
leaving the slums chronically shorthanded for labor. 
Setting aside the actual quality of the jobs, putting food 
on the table like “regular people” wasn't a problem. 

Granted, as slum dwellers they had no idea what 


STRANGER 


43 


“regular people” expected in terms of living standards. 

Even without dreams or desires, laboring 
under the weight of impotence and stagnation, human 
beings had to eat. Hunger constitutes the foundation in 
man’s hierarchy of needs. Nobody in the slums wished 
for catered meals and six-course dinners, but nobody 
wished to starve and die a dog's death, either. 

Food was not distributed equally, but rather 
according to hard work, and it was only when (hey hit 
their late twenties, when the high spirits of youth had 
grown stale, that they came to grips with this painful 
reality. Though this reckoning no doubt came to them 
faster than they ever expected. 

Passing around a bottle of “tripper," a hard, 
hallucinatory' stout, Kirie paused and spoke, as if the 
thought had suddenly occurred to him, “Did you hear? 
There’s a market opening in Mistral." 

"A market?” Sid queried, surprise evident in his 
eyes. “A Pet Auction, you mean?” 

Kirie nodded curtly. “The word is, this time 
it's Academy-manufactured pets. They’re positively 
jumping up and down with excitement, including the 
new money types in Kahn and Regina. Rumor has it the 
bid prices will be ten times the usual.” 

Where in the world had he heard that? They all 
fancied themselves street-wise bastards but Kirie was 
always the first one in the know. 

“Pedigreed pure bloods, eh?” Guy said to 

himself. 

"Ain’t got nothing to do with us,” Luke shot back. 




44 Ai No Kusabi - The Space Between 

“Not to compare us to those Academy- 
manufactured pets or nothing, but given the time and 
money, plus a little spit and polish, and we wouldn’t 
turn out half bad neither. Aside from a bit of an attitude 
problem. Eh, Riki?” 

Kirie turned his mismatched gray and blue eyes 
on Riki and laughed. As if to express his lack of interest 
in the subject. Riki took a swig of stout. This overt 
display of attitude made Kirie knit his brows. After all, 
being ignored in front of everybody was moie inhaling 

than being disagreed with. 

Even back when Bison had swatted him aside as 

a precocious outsider, they’d never dissed him the way 
Riki did, Riki's behavior towards him felt like a hard 

slap in the face. 1 

Son of a — 

Grinding his back teeth. Kirie recalled the 
night Guy had unexpectedly brought Riki here to their I 
customary hangout. They’d all been too surprised to say 
anything for a long second or two, and then, in the next 
instance, everybody was repeating his name in warm 
and oddly raised voices. I 

41 Riki—l” 1 

“Riki?" 

“They said Riki? Seriously ? I 

Kirie knew him. There before his very eyes were 
the black hair and eyes that suggested actual Academy- 
manufactured quality. This was the man who d once J 

been called the “Charisma” of the slums. a 

Kirie could even now recall the inexpressible, I 

almost intoxicating sensation that had overcome him. 


STRANGER 


45 


and it was all because of that night three days ago. It’d 
been burned into his retinas, whether by pure chance or 
inevitable late: the man who‘d led Bison was the one 
who went toe to toe with the kids who called Jeeks their 
leader—the same .leeks wlio’d sel himself up as the 
exterminator of Bison—and had subsequently whipped 
their asses. 

‘Tronic,” he'd have to call it. No, a godsend. 
Seeing this living legend □ second time, this iegend that 
he'd never believed he'd meet again, thrilled Kirie to the 
core of his being in a manner that was different from the 
other members of Bison. 

But he hadn't made a big deal about what had 
happened that night in front of everybody. So why did 
Riki turn a cold shoulder only to him? Was it because, 
among the gang members, Kirie’s was the only face 
that Riki didn't know? Perhaps the legend wasn’t 
comfortable striking up an overly familiar conversation 
on theft first meeting. 

But even after taking these factors into 
consideration, Kirie wasn’t mollified. As a result, he 
dug in his heels and withdrew from the chit-chat as well. 
He didn't understand it, though. Perhaps Riki had taken 
a disliking to him; he'd had that feeling since the first 
time they met. Or perhaps somebody had whispered 
something in his ear. Nobody had said anything right to 
his face. 

The severity of the look Riki Hashed him had an 
edge to it that couldn’t but leave any other impression. 
A sarcastic or biting comment would have been more 
welcome, because in that case, a comeback would have 






46 


Ai No Kusabi - The Space Between 


been possible. But Riki wasn't giving him an opening. j 
Far from it. Kirie was being completely snubbed, 
a fact he found thoroughly depressing. He narrowed his 
eyes in anger. Apparently blind to all of this, Riki made 
no attempt to lower his gaze as he stared off into the 
distance. Kirie scowled as he considered a cutting retort, 

all the more pissed off. .1 

Right then, as if waiting for exactly the right 

moment, Guy soflly spoke. "What's with you, Kirie 1 ? 
You want your own personalized col lar?" j 

Kirie lightly clucked his tongue at the lost 
opportunity. He took a breath to collect his senses and 
answered with a forced laugh. “Yeah, sure. Add in an 
owner who can keep me supplied with this Dublin hard 
ale and I'll lick the soles of his feet." 1 

That comment got under Riki's skin somewhere. 
His indifferent expression suddenly turned so cold 
that Kirie unconsciously clenched his fists even as he 
flinched. For reasons he could not understand, Riki’s 
steely gaze made his blood run cold. Feeling the full 
brunt of Riki’s displeasure, his pent-up frustrations were 
about burst into flames. 1 

What s with this motherfucker! ■ 

Kirie was pinned down by that frosty, silent 
gaze, and he simply couldn't find bis voice despite his j 
suffocating sense of indignation. All that remained was 
the personal contempt for his own awkwardness, and it 
was burning a hole in the pit of his stomach. fl 

At that point, sitting to his right, Luke spoke 
with the whisper of a smile creasing his lips. “Hey, wake 
up, you dumb bastard. You’re not seriously thinking 


STRANGER 


47 


about becoming some half-breed slum pet, are you?” 

Nobody laughed. Because it was God’s honest 
truth, not something people joked or made snide remarks 
about. In an obvious effort to dispel the unpleasant 
atmosphere, Norris interrupted in a vexed tone of voice. 
"The hell with that. What’s with Jeeks and those little 
twerps of his?” 

“Yeah, yeah. J got no idea why, but lately 
they've been really riding our asses." 

"But I heard that just the other day they ran 
into a chap who beat the crap out of them.” Calling it 
a rumor. Kirie related the information casually while 
stealing a glance at Riki. 

Riki didn't react in the slightest. 

"Well, that’d be a godsend. In any case, we 
should take the opportunity to kick some heads in. For 
starters, it'd settle things down around here.” 

With no indication as to whether he was listening 
or not, Riki lowered his eyes and drained the last of the 
stout from the bottle. The alcohol touched his mouth 
with a particular bitterness that stabbed at his tongue, 
yet this time the grating sensation struck Riki in a way 
that was different than usual. This lime it was vicious 
and heavy and dark, in a way that was hard io describe. 

Must be just my imagination. 

Riki slowly sw allowed the stout as he turned the 
thought over in his mind. When it came to warming his 
chest, it was belter to get high on spirits a bit smoother 
on the tongue, but this was the best he could expect 
around here. 







48 


Ai No Kusabi - The Space Between 


Between the bouts of gang warfare, he'd stepped 
back and pul some guarded distance between himself 
and the wild-eyed kids who prowled the Pleasure 
Quarters for thrills and profits. But that didn’t mean he'd 
abandoned "the cause” and gone over to earning his 

daily bread by the sweat of his brow. 1 

Every year more young bloods poured into 
Area 9, but the slums, running like arteries through the 
heart of Ceres, had already hardened, and none ol them 
possessed the strength of will to tear open the chest and 1 
drain the infection from its vital organs. j 

Without a generous sugar daddy there was no 
one to scrounge money from. These chaps, who were 
hardly able to extract any kind of enjoyment from their 
own youth, found that the luxurious, hallucinatory ale 

was nothing but a dream. 

A dream. Even the stout they were working on 
now. Three days earlier. Luke had run across a stock of 
supposed '‘class goods" somewhere, but that didn't mean 
he'd sampled the merchandise first to ascertain its true 
worth. The stout was brewed as an off-label stimulant. It 

was moonshine. 1 

Downing a slug in one shot instead of working 

at it was a risky business. If a chap’s luck was running 
against him, it was far from a mere "bad trip”: after a 
good deal of thrashing about and writhing in pain, the 
end result was death by suffocation. 1 

That accounted for stout's bad reputation among 
the alkaloid-based intoxicants, and undoubtedly was the 
reason that the very worst of the brand should suit the 
slums so well. 


STRANGER 


49 


Still, once a fellow got thoroughly wasted, it 
was a trip with no toll booths and no off-ramp. He’d sit 
there in a phantasm-filled euphoria, his lips forming the 
mere shape of words, the breath escaping his taut lips 
sounding like crushed rock underfoot. 

The stout shouldered the burdens of slum kids 
w ho had no other means of venting their frustrations. 
Even speaking truth to power, their souls remained 
unquenchcd. And always, there was the problem of 
being lightly cast aside, of being summed up in the 
simple phrase: “That's just the way the world jacking is” 

The stout liberated them, albeit temporarily, 
from that existence. No one told them a chap shouldn’t 
use off-label pharmaceuticals just because they “might 
be dangerous.” 

The conversation having exhausted itself, the 
empty silences that followed slowly began to dam up the 
spaces between them. 

At that point, some bee having buzzed under his 
bonnet, Luke roused himself and turned his glazed eyes 
on Riki. “What’s with you, man? Sitting there on your 
ass, getting shit-faced on this piss. ] mean it. you look 
pathetic." 

Something seemed to be lurking in Luke’s 
muddied gaze as his eyes crawled over Riki's body like 
a cat’s tongue ticking its fur. 

“Don’t mean to say you've turned into some old 
fan telling the same old war stories all day, though.” 

It was always like this. There was a rawmess 
in the voice and a look in the eyes that was enough to 



50 


Ai No Kusahi - The Space Between 


scorch his hair. Riki put it down to the stout beginning to 

kick in anti paid him no mind. 

Heartbeats slowly measured out the time, virility 

gradually returning as strength at last flowed back into 
the limbs with a strange, undulating rhythm. Silting back 
against the sofa in a relaxed manner, Riki stretched his 
arms and legs, and took a deep breath. j 

He closed his eyes. He could see nothing, hear 
nothing. He felt only the faint stirrings of something 
akin to slumber. His body and soul became enchanted by 
the mesmerizing sensations, and all the more blissfully 

beguiled with each breath. 

The darkness at the back of his eyes stirred. As a 
kaleidoscope of colors leapt into his vision, Riki lost all 
interest in everything but the pleasant numbness tilling 

him. j 

And then Guy, glancing over his shoulder at 

Riki, seemed to catch in the taint smile playing across 

his face a glimpse of those three missing years, and 

lowered his gaze. 


Chapter 3 


\ The slums « a monster that devours the soul of 

youth and spits out the gristle. 

[ Somebody must have said so at one time or 

another, for all the residents of Area 9 knew from 
personal experience that it was the honest truth. Yet 
those who tried to leave the slums were met with a 
deep-rooted scorn, and an envy more scathing than an 
ordinary' man could imagine. 

Rotting on the vine, the aging drifters—for there 
was nothing left to them but to grow old—had no dreams 
to consume. This was not necessarily good or bad. The 

day-to-day reality that was their only inheritance was 
worse than eating sand. 

Yet they poured slanderous abuse upon those 
tiying to destroy that painful reality, a backlash that 
mercilessly ate away at the soul. It was the dilemma. 

A man could not fly without dreams, but a man 
who never flew never knew the fear of falling. Any hope 
of progress was abandoned. Although this truth was 
hidden from no one, these people would clip their wings 

and throw them away, saying that if they did not, they 
would surely die. 

: The reality forming the “walls" of the slums was 

that thick, the darkness that black. 

Consequently, those who dared to challenge 
those walls, even knowing they would be slapped down. 




52 


Ai No Kusabi - The Space Between 


were derisively called “Martians,” after the Roman god 
of w ar Drinking themselves into depravity m rages ot I 
self-pity those hiding behind these words knew the 

shoes of these “Martians” would never fit them. 

Riki had once said the same thing over and over, I 

like a pet phrase. He expressed his true thoughts only I 
to Guy, the pairing partner that was his better halt, jj 

Someday /’m going to kiss the slums goodbye. M 

Until then, everybody who'd expressed the l 

same sentiments and left the slums behind had returned 
with fallen spirits and drooping shoulders after barely a 
month. Without a touch of fear Riki put conviction into I 
his words and looked forward to the future. jl 

Someday. For" sure. ■ 

Four years before. M 

Three months had passed since Bison 

unexpectedly broke up like a plane disintegrating in 

mid-air. Late one night, Riki staggered into Guy’s hole 

in the wall. 1 

“Hey, you okay?” 1 

As soon as he opened the door, Guy cauglu a 

f ace fail of alcohol laden breath and had to mm away, j 
Even when he drank, Riki wasn't a guzzler, but right 
now he smelled to Guy like he’d showered in booze^ 

Seeing Riki in this state aroused in Guy a high 
degree of anxiety. Before even inviting him in Guy 
reflexively knit his brows. “Riki, what’s going on? 1 
Clearly not giving a damn about 
besotted condition. Riki leaned forward, swaying, the 
comers of his mouth turning up. “A little present, hi 


STRANGER 


53 


said, pressing something against Guy’s chest. 

Guy had heard the rumors, but when it came to 
a same-label knockoff, not to mention the real thing, this 
brand of stout sported the astronomical prices that not 
even God could afford. He swallowed hard. “Where the 
hell did you gel this?” he asked in a hoarse voice. 

Riki chuckled with a suppressed a smile. It 
could be the real thing, or he was strung out on skid 
row home brew. Looking at Riki’s slack lips and sloppy 
mouth, Guy couldn’t begin to comprehend what was on 
his mind. As if to nip his anxieties in the bud, he spoke 
carefully. “You certainly seem in a good mood. You 
strike it rich?” 

He probed gently. Riki cast himself on the one 
good bed like he owned the place and mumbled, "Yeah, 
something like that” He lifted his heavy, bleary eyes and 
snorted through his nose. “Still, the Roget Renna Vartan 
is bloody impressive, too.” 

“This some kind of joke?” 

! “Huh? i just happened to come into a rare 

vintage you wouldn't think of praying for and wanted 
lo share the joy. Shit, you’re not saying 1 pinched it, are 
you?” 

With that, Riki twisted his body and laughed, his 
voice approaching a screech. Guy was uncertain whether 
the loud laughter could he attributed lo the drink, or a 
kink of stone-cold sober self-derision, and he couldn't 
quell a growing sense of foreboding. 

If his memory was not mistaken, this was 
probably the first time iti a long time that Riki made a 
killing cruising the Midas night. That's what accounted 






54 Ai No Kusabi - The Space Between ■ 

for his sudden change in appearance. fl 

Guy plunged his hands into Riki s pockets c tnd H 

found them bulging with a prepaid credit cards. "You’ve I 

got more than enough, right' ) Let's bug out ot here® 

before you roll snake eyes.” JH 

Riki had responded with a playful kick to Guys ■ 
ass. “Lady luck is loving me long and hard tonight At I 
a time like this, it's only good manners to love her back I 
the same way. You take off, Guy. Myself, I’m up for* 

another round.” , 

Riki laughed fearlessly and disappeared into the* 

crowds. That was the last Guy had seen of him that day. 

At the time, tiuy hadn i been particularlyB 
worried. Though edging himself pretty far out on the 1 
limb, the unusually jittery Riki still struck him as the last I 
person to try pulling some dumb stunt. Guy was sure 
he’d head off in high spirits and find some dive to drinH 

the night away in. j 

But when Guy thought about it now, mol 

night had been the start of something something had I 

happened out there, but Riki showed not the slightest 

inclination of saying what. | 

A month later Riki dropped the bombshell: 

“Gary, / m quitting Bison." fl 

Back in the day, before making itself king ot the 
mountain in the slums. Bison had been formed to prcMM 
a bunch of newcomers who enjoyed no patronage ad| 
had no connections in the colonies from getting eat* 
alive by the wily old rogues. 
























56 


Ai No Kusabi - The Space Between 


The powerful feasted on the weak. They fought. I 
therefore they were. That was the painlully transparent I 
logic of power in the slums. The strong inherited the I 

earth—how could they not? I 

Those who prevailed and advanced to the next I 

round in the struggle for existence earned the right to | 
loudly proclaim their own righteousness, Fawners and I 
whiners need not apply. Trust no one. For good, or ill. I 
those who couldn't carve out their own place in the I 

world would be plucked raw. j I 

Best to become strong and avoid getting I 

screwed over. That was the rule of the slums. Even if I 
weak individually, great power arose from combining I 
the many as one. It thoke who individually would be left I 
destitute pooled their resources and worked in union, I 
they could clean house. Riki had become the catalyst. I 

the linchpin that made it happen. 9 

“Lying low and playing it safe guarantees I 

nothing. 1 ' That had been Riki's ironclad policy since his I 

days at the Guardian foster center. 

But Riki also said, “That doesn't mean I've I 

got the slightest inclination to catch flack for complete H 
strangers." Aside from finally deciding to become -out I 
of sheer necessity— the tie facto leader of Bison, he did I 
not have any particular desire lor the position nor any I 
attachment to it. 

He simply couldn't tolerate people trying to twist 
his arm. people wearing kid gloves that concealed mailed I 
fists. Or the cajoling, bothersome buttinskies. Or the I 
uniters who bought their salvation on the backs of others. I 
The affection Riki’s acolytes had for him burned 


STRANGER 


57 


with u white hot flame, but with the sole exception of 
Guy, Riki's black eyes never blamed with an equal 
devotion towards them. In spite of this, Riki's presence 
was enchanting, and it excited in them a kind of 
euphoria. 

And so Guy. and then Sid, and then Luke, and 
because of him. Norris, hitched their fortunes to Riki 
and formed the pillars shouldering the throne of his 
charisma. They had their own desires. They dreamed 
their own dreams. And they aspired to dispatch the 
opposition and become top dog in the slums as well. 

But once Riki abdicated, for whatever reason, 
one had the desire to become his successor, and that’s 
why Bison disintegrated. As outsiders looked on in 
amazement, it faded away into that good night with nary 
a struggle. 

Jsn t he the one rushing in where angels fear to 
rn'iu/? The slums were talking, and the way the envious 
rumors were flying about, it was believed lie must’ve 
really been in the money. A short while later, just when 
everyone was beginning to doubt they'd see Iris face 
again, lie suddenly showed up with a crate of expensive 
spirits the likes of which the slums had never seen 
before. 

i While greeting all the commotion with a big 
smile, he was not intoxicated in the slightest by the 
looks of envy and jealousy lie received. Far from it. 
Guy and the others thought they detected something 
unlathoinable in Riki’s black eyes, the intensity of a 
swollen and insatiable hunger. 

Not only Guy and the others, but everybody in 







5K 


Ai No Kusabi - The Space Between 


the slums wanted to know the source of his riches, 1 
“Yo. Riki. You're not eating at the trough of one 

of those new money types, are you ? ’ I 

“No way. You think there’s anybody who could 

put a muzzle on a wild stallion like Riki? j 

“So. what’s the real story, then?” 
Cross-examining him, tossing around the | 
needling sarcasm and barbed jokes, Riki made no 
effort to respond other than with vague, noncommittal: 1 

answers. 

They didn't press him any further than this. 
Even when they were no longer hanging out together 24/ 
7, Riki was still the same old Riki, and so provoked no 
more than his expected share of antipathy and jealousy 

No, that wasn’t it. | 

Mis conspicuous jet black hair and obsidian 

eyes, along with the vivid aura sealed within his supple 
limbs, had become more intense. Riki was free from 
the shackles that Bison had become, and people even 
thought that he had reclaimed some of the brilliance ol 

his true nature, JM 

Nobody put these thoughts into words, but they 

had come to realize that the disparity between themselves 

and Riki had become stark. They half-uneonsciously 

kept themselves in check so that all their chickenshi! 

envy wouldn't end up warping their outlook on life. 

wouldn’t rend in two the chains binding themselves and 

Riki together. J 

Guy couldn't help but worry. Not as a member ot 

Bison but as Riki’s pairing partner, constantly at his side. 

“Hey, Riki. Seriously, you don’t want to be 


STRANGER 


59 


sticking your head out like this.” 

“What the hell are you looking at me like that 
for. all of a sudden?” 

“Don’t try to pull the wool over my eyes. 
Gimme an answer!” 

Guy fretted because he wished to be Riki’s 
emotional cornerstone. That’s what he wanted, and 
that's how he hoped things would continue to be. But 
then where did this strange sense of irritation come 
from? Or the illusion that the bonds connecting Riki and 
himself were unraveling bit by bit? Or that Riki was not 
even aware of his growing unease? 

Riki sighed deeply and spoke in a subdued 
voice. “You know, Guy, there aren't opportunities just 
lying around everywhere. Especially chances for guys 
like us to see the light of day.” Me narrowed his black 
eyes slightly, eyes steeped with alcohol. “That stout 1 
snuck in here, 1 was going to stretch ii out and make it 
lasl longer but i got tired of the crappy buzz it got me.” 

He quietly spoke his mind about things he'd 
been storing up inside him. 

“If I'm going to see the same old dreams. I want 
io see a damned good show. Just sitting around with my 
thumb in my mouth and a wistful look on my face till the 
cud of time is a waste. We both know tons of blokes like 
that. You know?” 

| He knew what he was asking. 

| “Guy, 1 hale it here. If I stay like this forever, 
l ir: going to rot from the inside out. It’s enough to give 
me the fucking willies.” 

He knew the weight of reality. 






60 


Ai No Kusabi The Space Between 


He knew everything inside and out. 

“I’m going to crawl out of here and see lor 

myself," he said aloud, as if to demonstrate the strength 

of his unwavering will. I 

Guy didn't know what had spurred Riki to i 

these extremes. Riki had discovered something about 

his place in the world, but Guy never pressed him about 

it. perhaps because he was afraid that doing so would 

rupture the link that they shared. So he simply gave a 

laconic nod. "Yeah, sure— 1 

His lips curled slightly as the sharp spines ot 

some invisible thorn stuck in his throat, 9 

Midas, Area 9. Ceres, These backstreets may 
have had a past once, but they possessed no future. 

Nothing geographical separated Ceres and 
Midas, riven though Ceres and Midas shared the same 
earth and die same sky, it so happened that Ceres 
“mongrels” didn't share the same identity card held by 
the citizens of Midas. And it was that difference alone 
that made the Ceres slums and Midas galaxies apart. j 
It wasn’t the flocking together of criminals and 
drifters that birthed that characteristic heap of refuse in 
the slums, i iic lot known as Area d did not exist on an\ 
map or any registration card ot any resident ot Midas, 
and that’s the way it had been, for as long as anyone 

could remember. J 

What was uncharted bred discord that was out 

of sight, but not out of mind. Ceres served as a constant 

reminder to the citizens of Midas, throbbing away in the 

comers of their eyes, disciplining their actions like a 


STRANGER 


61 


threat of the branding iron. 

Bound in both body and spirit, the lives 
of the residents of the Pleasure Quarters were far 
from agreeable. Shackled hy inheritance to the class 
system known as "Zein," they were not free to choose 
occupations in disregard to class differences. They were 
also not free to love whom they chose to love. 

Nevertheless, rather than causing trouble or 
bucking the establishment and losing their II) cards, 
they all knew that the far better course was to follow the 
rules and keep their mouths shut. The despised trash of 
Ceres were right there in front of them, scraping by in 
the slums, too low to the ground to reach up and grasp 
their own bootstraps, let alone pull themselves up by 
them. 

The existence of the lower depths perpetually 
hovering at the peripheries of their vision served as a 
teady confirmation of their own feelings of superiority 
and revulsion. 

To ihe citizens of Midas, their greatest 
humiliation was not the invasive restrictions on their 
speech and conduct, nor was their indignation directed 
towards any flagrant abuse of their human rights. It 
was the thought of being stripped bare and dumped in 
Ceres. 

i To live in Ceres -was to no huger be a human 

being. 

The fact was imprinted on the basal ganglia of 
(heir brains and permeated every cell of their bodies. It 
was the warning of Midas itself laid bare, so that they 
would not make the same mistake twice. 






62 As No Kusabi - The Space Between !■ 

A revolt had once broken out in Midas that I 
threatened to overturn the established order. The chains I 
of control and serv ility imposed by the digital overlord I 
were severed. The revolutionaries seeking to bring about | 
a new order based on the pursuit of liberty and human I 
dignity occupied Area 9 with the goal ol achieving I 

independence. II 

“This is not a revolution but a reformation," I 

they declared. "The era when men serve and submit to I 

machines is over." I 

But when, from where, and how-' they would I 

provision themselves with the capital and materials II 
necessarily for the venture, along with the data and intel I 
necessary to challenge Midas, no, lanagura, directly? I 
In Area 9 they only had access to those human and I 
material resources belonging to a people accustomed to 1 
a besieged existence. 

The revolutionaries believed that nobody would I 
be compelled. There would be no distinctions between I 
high and low. The expectation was that everyone would I 
be treated equally as individuals. Ceres was going to ■ 

become that kind of utopia. II 

"Cast off your shackles! Demand true I 

freedom!” was the battle cry they raised. Promising a I 
rebirth of human rights and budging not an inch in their I 
convictions, their power and passion w'ere astounding. I 
Like a raging bonfire, the sparks flying up I 
from Area 9 touched off conflagrations in other areas. I 
The long-repressed, smoldering emotions burst into I 
flames. The grudges and resentments stored up until I 
this moment were expressed with w'ide-ranging acts I 


STRANGER 


63 


of sabotage. Every nook and cranny seethed with open 
criticism of the “system.” 

From the outset Midas government officials 
downplayed the severity of the crises. ’’They won’t last 
ten days." But eventually they fell victim to the effects 
of the revolution as customer traffic dried up, and they 
were at last forced to come to terms with the seriousness 
of the situation. 

Perhaps they were dimly aware of the flickering 
shadows of Commonwealth allies lurking behind 
the ringleaders who had dared bare their teeth to the 
’’system.” Even though their hearts were roiling in a 
tempest ot indignation, at least on the surface they did 
not attempt to force the issue. 

The end result was that instead of countering 
through brute-force and eradicating Area 9, Midas 
simply announced that their residential records would be 
deleted, i hat day the echoing cries of joy reverberated 
through Ceres. Mctory! They had done it! 

It was almost a letdown that the announcement 
from Midas was so magnanimous, and some did 
exchange doubtful looks. But such doubts were lost 
in the cries of victory, the back-slapping and drunken 
exuberance. Without a single sacrifice—without a single 
loss of life—they had won their rights, their freedom, 
and their independence. That was something they could 
be proud of. 

However, in the end they were left to wonder: 
If 'hat did we ready win? And: Why vmv Midas so quick 
to recognize the independence of Ceres ? 
t The excitement of victory soon abated, and the 








64 


Ai No Kusabi - The Space Between 


revolutionaries counted the days and months and began 
to think things through. They had escaped the rule of 
Midas but now came face to face with the demands of 
their own existence. The harshness ot a reality that up 
until now was not even a figment in their imagination 

began to sink in. 

one who comes here wifi he rejected That 

was their article of faith* 

together with their oppressed and downtrodden 

compatriots, together with like-minded people, they 

would build the future together. Yes, they were that 

naive. The Commonwealth’s surreptitious assistance 

had been necessary for their independence, and perhaps 

they had not completely realized what it meant to stand 

without it. 'il 

Of course they were grateful tor the treely- 

offered help of their Commonwealth supporters 

in raising the banner of human rights. But it never 

occurred to them that their very purpose, of breaking 

the stranglehold of Tanagura, the “metallic city” stained 

by the corrupting poison of Midas, was being subverted 

by the Commonwealth's flattering actions and agitating 

words. . \ 

As 0 result, before they coulti even establish tticir 

"ideal system,” they were overrun by those bewitched 

with the idea of Ceres being "free. ' The vast majority 

of them arrived with no firm convictions backing their 

belief. Just the hope that by going to Ceres “something’ 

would change, that "something” would happen. 

if one wanted to lead, one had to understand 

how profoundly young ihey were. Ignorant. Running off 




STRANGER 


65 


with a picture of perfection held in their heads, they were 
blind to the cold, hard reality at their feet. Their fatal 
flaw was the lack of a leader who could make decision 
firmly, without second thoughts, without getting lost in 
his emotions. 

The first reality released upon Ceres was chaos. 
Next came: “That’s not what you promised!” 

And: “Whaf s in it for me?” 

And: "I’m not doing a shitty job like that 1 !” 

And so the individual discontent and grumbling 
continued. Eventually, impatience with things not being 
as imagined was replaced by irritation with things not 
turning out as they expected. 

“Unshackled freedom” did not mean doing 
whatever a person felt like without outside interference. 
To take up the reins of freedom, it was necessary to 
respect the rule of law and to cooperate. Otherwise, a 
person could cry “freedom" until lie was blue in the face 
and his ideals would remain idle visions. 

* The independence of an unpredictable mob 

rule was independence without meaning. For hard- 
won freedom to take root, time and patience were 
necessary. They were a simple bunch and should have 
lea ned the most important of these lessons through 
their experiences, If they had, circumstances may have 
changed for the better. 

But while the so-called “professional” activists 
from the Commonwealth were supporting the cause 
of freedom, in Ceres, where its tempests were stilling 
and fevers rapidly abating, they still remained strangers 
and foreigners to each other. They had been given 




66 At No Kusabi - The Spate Between 

t 

independence from Midas, but carrying out their original 
plan met with a number of roadblocks, leaving C eres ma 

state of deep distress. , j 

Nevertheless, as bad as things got there, their 

thoughts were no doubt soothed by the tact that they at 

least had a place to go home to. I 

Midas began chipping away at such loftiness 

and the people of Ceres began to learn the true cost 

of freedom. Midas raised no objections to those who 

wished to resettle in Ceres, and now Midas refused t eir 

repatriation on the grounds that their residency records 

had been destroyed and no longer existed. 

The door was not closed completely on them, 

though there was always the threat that they would 
attempt to tear the system down a second time. For those 
who wished it, Midas made no bones of employing such 
brainwashing techniques as “memory adjustment an® 

the like. . , . . 

The main point was to save face vis-a-vis tne 

Commonwealth as the satellite city of Tanagura. Midas 

did not spare the rod or spare the child. Area w® 

ringed with sensors and isolated, such that not even a ia 

could cross over undetected from Ceres. 

These measures served as additional warnings 


to the citizens of Midas. 

The dreams of the revolution broken, the 
shoulders of the revolutionaries sagged and their hearts 
Brew heavv. There was no way around, over, or througli 
dri. wall of massive rejection. They wasted away in 
Ceres, dragging their feel, staggering under the weigh 

of regret and despair. a 


STRANGER 


67 


Right under their noses was Midas, clad in its 
gaudy neon robes day and night. The harlot teased at 
their hearts hut would never invite them back inside the 
citadel. 

Eventually, the tides of lethargy eroded the 
remnants ol the collective soul like a terminal disease 
worming its way through the marrow of Ceres brick by 
i 'i iek. Even when the eras changed and the sensor fences 
were removed, it showed no signs of stopping. Over Ihe 

years, ihe sickness had burrowed into the degenerating 
slums. 


Riki set off fully aware of the past, but with his 
eyes set firmly on the future. When he'd left Guy he’d 
made a vow. “’Only a loser slops to look back.” 

But then one night, three years to the day since 
Riki left the slums (or rather, vanished from Guy’s 
presence), he suddenly returned. Guy was caught 
totally off guard, and could only stand there, eyes wide, 
stammering, unable to pul two words together. 

’’Well, you seem to be doing well.” 

Riki flashed his familiar grin, He’d put on a few 
inches, matured enough to look almost like a completely 
different person. His once raw intensity was remarkably 
subdued and his slender limbs were smart and trim. But 
it was his eyes that Guy was struck by. which were sober 
to the point of being cold. 

■ Riki ... it’s really you?” Guy asked, despite 
himself He had to know for certain. 

His former mates were energized in ways both 
Stood, and had about Riki s return to the slums, fo one 





68 Ai No Kusabi - The Space Between 

degree or another, everyone wanted a * e 

vacuum of those three missing years Needless to- , 
i, wasn't long before the anenttoo of all the eyes m the 

stam s Srd.e m “Chansma” of <ta 

slums had returned a beaten dog. All mam e 
was spoken behind his back. j 

"‘Serves him right! „ j 

‘Didn't return with honor, that s lor sur • 

"A bloody shame, him living in disgrace hke hat. 
They all pointed fingers and lathed ^ 

B t,^ Z r unat arable flower who'd 
^ntm^d “to a stng.e partner. Even after falling 
from grace, this Rower that bloomed in the swamp o 
slums was still a lotus. . u tn tw* j 

. :iln picSng * np trad lovi,, 

it, they would rather 

numbers had become slaves to that kina v 

pteaSUre And ye. Rtki held his tongue and didn't mJ 
back, despite how much derision he was showerel vnt 
No matter how blatantly he was provoked. Li I 

off a docltshaek rf — rate 

"tan slinking hack ra» 

slums with his broken dreams had at least dragget a 


STRANGER 


69 


the painful spasms of self-contempt, and on top of that, 
the dark clouds of madness gathering in the lower depths 
of despair. Common practice was to drown themselves 
in drugs and alcohol, seal themselves within the shell 
of the self and flee the visions of the past by briefly 
escaping into that waking dream. 

But Riki had changed. Gone was the white-hot 
intensity that once scorched whatever it touched. Far 
from it. Now. his eyes only seemed to look down at 
the rest of them. And there was the manner in which he 
drained his glass, as if perpetually lost in his thoughts. 
I here was something about that relaxed quietude. 

There was no way for Guy to discern the 
head of the tight-lipped Riki. Yet to the commonplace 
assertion that “It's all for the best." Riki’s transfiguration 
had brought about so many profound and radical 
changes that he could only refiexivdy nod his head in 
agreement. 







Chapter 4 


Midas, Area 3, Mistral Park was a large 
convention center complex lined with exhibition 
pavilions of various shapes and sizes. 

Beginning with “Casino Row," Lhassa’s main 
attraction, and continuing onto its “entertainment 
establishments,” visitors then found on the flanks of the 
Pleasure Quarters what might be called (with a somewhat 
different interpretation) the true face of Midas. 

Auction day approached. Midas was caught 
up in a fever quickly exceeding its normal hustle and 
bustle. The animated voices reached even into the oval 
plaza, which was otherwise subdued during the daylight 
hours. 

As Kirie promised, rumors of the Auction 
flowed fast and thick, down to the pubs and dives of 
‘res that could not have less to do with it. Perhaps 
this was because Academy-manufactured products were 
again making their debut after a five-year absence. 

Riki and his mates were hanging out at Hernia's 

crib. 

“What do you say? ( ’mon, let's go,” implored 
Kirie, climbing into Sid’s lap. “Anyway, watching is free. 
Ifs nice to stand on the sidelines now and then really cut 
loose for a change, don't you think? And if we’re in luck, 
we might earn ourselves some beer money.” 

Sid must have found getting singled out by Kirie • 






72 


Ai No Kusabi The Space Between 


not altogether disagreeable, because he was getting 
into the mood about the time Kirie started tugging on j 
his earlobes, He looked to Riki. as if asking for the 
permission of their former leader. “Yo, Riki. What about 

it?” I 

Showing little interest in the Auction or in going 
anywhere, period, Riki replied curtly. “1 fyou want to go. 
then go.” jfl 

Sid reacted with a small shrug. Kirie furrowed j 
his brows, a sullen look on his face. “What’s up with 
you? It’s like people say, you spend all day sucking i 
lemons. At any rate, what else you got to do with your 
free time?” Kirie lit into them, berating the timidity of 
the gang members who up to now had always given 
Riki’s preferences first priority. “You actually got some 
reason for not wanting to go?" ■ 

When Riki turned toward his attacker, Kirie 
added, tightening his lips and narrowing his eyes, 
“Maybe there’s somebody there you're not so eager to j 
meet?” 9 

“Whatever," Riki said, as if the whole thing had j 
become too mindlessly bothersome to care about. I 

“Then it’s settled. Not a bad idea io hit the town 
together now and then,” Kirie said sardonically, flashing 
a complacent smile. a 

“1 don't care for this asshole." Riki spat with 
a sideways glance, too low to be overheard. Was it 
because, not even seventeen, Kirie's strangely affected, 
know-it-all attitude stuck in his craw? Or perhaps it was j 
being treated so presumptuously by a kid three years his 
junior? No, that wasn't it either. 


STRANGER 


n 


What Riki couldn't stand about him was not the 
way Kirie fixed him with those oddly mismatched eyes 
ofhjs, but rather that behind those eyes lingered a carbon 
copy of himself from three years before. 

Kirie didn’t know that he was a frog stuck at the 
bottom oi a well. He didn't even comprehend the nature 
of this dumping ground in which he vented his excessive 
passions. He grasped only the illusions crawling out of 
die bottom of a bottle of stout as he gasped for air. 

At first none of this had occurred to Riki. 
who took little note of Kirie aside from his curiously 
mismatched eyes, but at some point he started seeing a 
shadow of his own immature self back when he was a 
kid. When he was Kirie's age he'd surely flaunted the 
same kind of attitude, Take himself back five years and 
there’d be no denying it 

Once he d realized this, the memories sprang 
up out of the past, entwining themselves around him, 
condensing those three blank years in one fell swoop. 

It was unbearable, seeing this reflection of his former 
self that had no logical reason to exist. Unbelievable. To 
tlvnk I once stood in his settne shoes. They were strong 
feelings that made him unwittingly grit his back teeth 
and choke down the bitter bile. 

He d returned to his own haunts because 
there he could take a deep breath and relax without 
everybody’s eyes on him. He could slake his constricted, 
aching throat. Stretch his stiff limbs. Do what he wanted, 
when he wanted. Savor his freedom. 

It was strange. Around Ihe time he announced he 
was leaving Bison, the daily dullness of life lacked any 









74 


Ai No Kusabi The Space Between 


impetus to change, and it made him want to throw up. 

But now it was unbearably dear to him. 

Despite the abandoned thing that now sneered 
at the weaknesses he wished to heal, despite the 
humiliation of being exposed as a loser, Riki now had a 
more persistent and demanding hunger. Yet nothing had 
changed. With his frazzled pride, his ripened body now 
rotting on the vine, it’d be a long time before the senses 
of this dull and tarnished Varja returned in full. 

Still, the past he'd never expected to leave 
behind him gradually seemed to be fading away as he 
submerged himselt in the fevered swamp of his iotm^r 

crib, surrounded by all its brutality. 1 

But considering the changes he'd gone through, 
why did his old mates strike him as so immutable? Riki 
had the feeling he was letting his pride and arrogance 
show and had come to regret it lar too late. 

Only Kirie’s words left a bitter taste in his mouth. 
Chewing them up and forcing them down inflamed old 
wounds. Originally he’d hardly been the type to watch 
and wait, but if nothing else, those three years had taught 
him patience. Or perhaps it was more accurate to say that 
his pride and stubbornness had been yanked out by istt 
roots, and humility crammed down his throat. j 

The siander and scorn of the slums were 
peanuts in comparison. Nowadays, casting oft the odd 
humiliation was nothing. These thoughts had in no small 
way prompted Riki to return to his old haunts. 

And yet Kirie's presence alone struck the 
nerve that brought the burning past back to life. All the 
memories of his naive and arrogant youth, o! playing 


STRANGER 


75 


the consummate delinquent, were vividly resurrected 
before his very eyes. His heart could know no peace. 
His eyes flashed with bitter anger and the mask of cool 
indifference was prone to slip. 

Nine-thirty in the morning, Midas standard 
time, the day of the Auction, As if the excitement had 
spilled over from the night before, the Pleasure Quarters 
were bustling with people. The weather was wonderful. 
Blue skies and not a cloud in the sky weather perfectly 
appropriate fora carnival. 

And among them, Kirie nipped at Riki's heels in 
a high state of agitation. “Hey, quit dragging your feet. 
Let's move it along!” 

Guy observed Kirie as he walked with Riki 
toward Mistral Park. “Kirie’s sure full of himself.” 

' "That's because he’s a kid.” 

L “A kid, huh.” 

“What's that clever smile supposed to mean?” 

“Oh, nothing. Just something I remembered ” 
k “What’s that?” 

“There was also a crop of Academy- 

manufactured pets that year we came to the Colony, 

and the place was really cooking. You were the one 

whooping it up and gee-whizzing about this, that, and 
the other thing," 

[ Riki said nothing in return. 

| “That’s who Kirie reminds me of. The two of 
you are peas in a pod.” 

"Don t put me in the same category as that little 

twerp.” 



76 


Ai No Kusabi - The Space Between 


IM 




“Ah, 1 see. You’re so much more grown up. 
Speaking of which, you were so worried that / d get lost j 
tha t you held my hand and wouldn’t let go the whole 1 

time. Hey, ow/” ,1 

Shut up and keep walking.” 1 

"What re you hitting me tor? All l m doing t&fl 

reminiscing about the good old days ^ | 

“Enough's enough. So put a sock in it. ■ 

“Fine, fine." 1 

The opening was still a while oft and the road* 

leading to the Auction grounds was everywhere jammed 

with the waves of people, The crowd was enough to I 

exhaust Riki’s patience. I 

With more woVider than sarcasm in his voice, 
Kirie looked on with wide eyes. "Look all these people! 
It’s a goddamned people parade! How about we get 
things started already! It's hot as a bathhouse around 

hcrcT' J 

Luke snorted with derision, “What it comes 
down to is, they're just a bunch ot homy, fucked up. 
nouveau riche types. Aside irovn the lact that we fuck 
ourselves up on stout instead, there's no big difference 

between us and them." 1 

“It's interesting, just the same. All these differ® 

kinds of people. You don't get to feast your eyes upon 

Academy-manufactured pets very often. 1 wonder what 

they’re thinking, everybody flocking up to the display 

windows like that.” 

He wasn’t asking this question of anyone in 
particular, But Kirie’s gaze half-unconsciously sought out 
Riki’s black eyes as he returned from the bustling throngs. 















































78 


Ai No Kusabi ■ The Space Between 


“So, Riki, what do you think?” m 

Riki would have normally turned indifferently 
and looked the other way, but this time, strangely 
enough, lie fixed his gaze on Kirie's mismatched pair of 
eyes. « 

“At first, what everybody thinks: If l had to do 
this every day— That sort of thing. Then 1 take a look 
at the opening bids and my eyes bug out, A cold slap to 
the face. I here’re blokes here with the all the time and 
money in the world and blokes here with nothing. When 
all is said and done, it doesn’t matter if you can't accept 
the distance between yourself and the privileged classes. 
You're forced to deal with it and that’s what sticks in 
your craw.” * 

“Well, what do you know. Once in a while, the 
strong, silent type opens his mouth and has something 
radical to say." Kirie looked at Riki with an almost 
startled expression and smiled a curious smile. 

Guy and the others cast sideways glances at 
Kirie and speculated among themselves, each according 
to his own fancy, 

“Hey, hey, there they go again." 

“Whenever they meet, this is how they end up. 
So why don’t they get along?” Wt 

“Idiot. I he only radical thing here is that mouth 
of yours.” 

But they felt differently in their hearts: Kirie 
never learns. He's about a century> too young to go 
mouthing off to Riki. 

Riki let out a heavy sigh. “It's hardly that big of 
a deal, is it?" 


STRANGER 


79 


“What? Being a few years older makes you a 
wise old fart?” 

“Yeah, because you're always spouting off like 
the wise-ass, wet-behind-the-ears kid you are.” 

“I luh. Give you three years and you're supposed 
to he some highfalutin man among men? When you’ve 
gone from the undisputed head of Bison to some piss- 
normal ordinary bloke? It’s a real letdown. I'm telling 
you. Somebody must have got the jump on you. At least 
that's what it looks like to me.” 

Before he could say another word, Norris 
smacked Kirie up the side of his head. 

“What’s that for?” 

“That’s for being an idiot. Give us all a fucking 
break, okay?” 

“What's wrong about telling things as they are, 

huh?” 


Answering with the same swagger in his voice 
Riki said, “Yeah, 1 suppose you’ve been able to spout 
shit like that ever since you've been able to pull up your 
own pants. Kirie. But once the nice little security blanket 
you got here gets ripped away, it's gonna come back and 
bite you in the ass.” 

It was spoken dryly, but with a hard edge that 
nibbed Kirie raw. What Riki was really saying grated 
mockingly in his ears. You got an awful big mouth for 
some rum kid picking at Bison s table scraps. 


He casually glanced at Sid and Norris and saw' the 
bitter, knowing smiles playing across their faces. What was 
plainly tugging at Luke’s lips need not be said. And Guy, 
y ho usually did something to intercede, only faintly sighed. 




80 


Ai No Kusabi - The Space Between 


What—what s this? Kirie thought, in a I 
spontaneous flash of anger. Unexpectedly seized by the I 
illusion of losing his place in the world, his head ached I 

down to the core. II 

“Just because I won't sell myself short!" A burst I 
of anger burning with a sense of loss. II 

“In that case, shut your noisy mouth. It's hurling I 
my ears,” Riki said to his face, bluntly turning aside I 
Kirie’s inflamed and agitated gaze. II 

Only the space between them kept Riki and I 
Kirie from locking horns. Here was heat of a completely I 
different kind, a silence like the clashing ot unblended I 
colors. 

Kirie fixed Rikt with his gaze and didn't move a I 
muscle. Or, to be more precise, ii might be better to say I 
that the shock of facing Riki’s usually distracted black I 
eyes head on for the first time left him unable to even I 
blink, Cold sweat slowly soaked his back. His throat 
grew helplessly parched under the weight of feeling I 
indescribably oppressed. II 

“C'mon, Riki, Let's go." Spreading oil on the I 
waters, Guy draped his arm around Riki's shoulders. I 
That touch alone, and the icy gleam vanished from I 
Riki's eyes, 

Finally released from Riki's spell, a great I 
feeling of relief welled up in Kirie s chest. Without 1 
really thinking about it, he moistened his lips with his I 

tongue over and over. II 

“Hey, snap out of it. We’re going.” 

All the joints in his body were still so unnaturally I 
stiff that when Sid gave him a sharp jab in the back lie I 


STRANGER 


81 


stumbled forward. 

“Fuck all, but it's a couple million years too soon 
lor an amateur like you to go picking fights with Riki.” 

“Well, yeah. But at least he didn't wet himself.” 
i )idn't, did he? Only because they never locked 

eyes." 

“You owe Guy a thank-you note.” 

And so they gave him a no-holds dressing down. 
Kirie's competitive instincts flared up again, “What do I 
have to be thankful to Guy for?” Kirie's quick recovery 
was superb, 

“If you got to ask, then that's because you’re 
still a kid." 

They knocked him around once again. Kirie was 
getting downright pissed. Quiz coiling me a kid! Three 
years between us don t make you a hunch of world- 
weary geezers! 

In every respect, the term “early bloomer” 
applied to Bison. All it took was for the gang’s leader to 
throw in tine towel and the rest of them opted for early 
retirement. Or rather it could be said that, to the extent 
that they showed no regrets, they had completely burned 
themselves out. 

Why? Why were they still hanging together? 
With their reason for existence, their foundation, having 
vanished? 

“Shit!" Kirie spat out under his breath, glaring 
at the backs of Guy and Riki, walking side by side head 
of him. Just you fucking wait and see! Give me a chance 

and / 7/— 


Good fortune was not going to fall into his lap 






82 


Ai No Kusabi The Space Between 


if he was just sitting around on his hands, and he knew 
from living in the slums that the opportunity wasn'l 
going to present itself either. He’d heard rumors that 
Riki had left Bison to take a shot at something he’d 
happened into. At the time Riki was fifteen or sixteen. 
Whatever Riki could do, Kirie was sure he could do as 
well. fl 

Nevertheless, Kirie furrowed his brows. He 
didn't really understand the connection between Riki 
and Guy. Theirs was obviously no ordinary relationship 
It was common knowledge that they'd been physically 
involved since they'd been at Guardian, and that even 
while they were there, Riki's attachment to Guy had 
never been something to be taktyi lightly, I 

That’s why when Kirie first got to know 
Guy—thanks to a good word from Sid—and found the 
lieutenant of the legendary Bison to be a normal, easy¬ 
going guy, he felt as if someone was pulling his leg, 
What the hell is this? He's just an ordinary bloke! Don't 
look like no superman to me! AH l have to do is knock 
this number two off his perch and— m 

The gap between rumor and reality proved 
infuriating for Kirie, but when Riki returned to the 
slums, Kirie learned for the first time why Guy was his 
lieutenant. Even though it wasn’t spelled out in so many 
words, the two of them clearly communicated on a deep 
level. Like it or not, he had to deal with the reality of 
the true meaning of the term "pairing partner,” and the 
manifestation of feelings of jealousy that were difficult 

to express. a 

In Area 9, children up to the age of twelve were 


STRANGER 


83 


all reared together by the child care administrators of 
the Guardian foster center. The reason given was that 
die mortality rate of children in violent, dysfunctional 
en\ ironment of the slums was disproportionately high. 

That was part of it, but at the root of the problem 
was the extremely low- birth rale of girls compared to 
that of boys. This may have been due to a particular 
property of the planet known as Amoy, along with any 
number of other unknown factors. 

Only in Midas—in Ceres—were there no 
population or eugenic controls in place. "Natural sex 
election” had been declared a "basic right,” as if to set 
in stone the rallying cries of human dignity raised at the 
lime of its independence, 

jf Consequently, the small number of girls were 
given preferential treatment over the boys, and those 
with any inclination to bear children could do so in an 
isolated and far more agreeable environment. Unlike the 
boys who were forced to be "independent” of Guardian 
it the age of thirteen, to the extent that they were capable 
of giving birth, girls were under no obligation to live in 
the infested slum colonies. 

^ Naturally, as things turned out, approximately 
ninety-nine percent of the residents of the slums—even 
lI limited 1o the in utero children alone were males, the 
only sex capable of being bom. 

Accordingly, “families” in the form of 
“blood relationships” were nonexistent among the 
sime-sex relationships that formed the foundation 
of life in the slums. And neither was ihere any 
concept of official or ceremonial "marriage.” 









84 


Ai No Kusabi - The Space Between 


Area 9—Ceres—had produced that kind of 
distorted and closed society. All the more reason that the 
citizens of Midas should live willingly like house pets 
within (he giant cage that was the Pleasure Quarters, 
while at the same time scorning Ceres as "the slums.” 

But the human animal is a social one. and 
is driven to seek out a healing presence to quench 
the loneliness of life. Hence the "pairing partner, an 
inseparable “significant other'* that existed beyond love 
and affection, beyond contracts or obligations, and was 
untroubled by the presence of no-strings-attached ' sex 
friends.'’ Even so. when choosing for “life," a compatible 
and sexual ly-available partner was preferred. J 

Who is the right one jbr me—? i 

There were not a few for whom such 
considerations could never surmount the high hurdle of 

their own idealism. M 

When Kirie decided to run with Bison at Sid's 

invitation, one big reason was that, although Bison was 
now more legend than reality, the name commanded 
considerable respect in the slums simply as a status 
symbol. In fact, they could call on so many favors 
that they could get by on the daily freebies alone if the 

inclination so struck them. 

Because of this, though Kirie and Bison had 
crossed paths many times, not once had he been shaken 
down for his “lunch money." On these occasions, Guy 
had come across as a straight shooter. W hen Kirie 
reached out to them, he was turned down flat and sem 

away with a slap on the wrists. M H 

Among the members, he was the only one Kirie 


STRANGER 


85 


couldn’t win over, and that grated on his pride. “What’s 
the matter? Can't get it up. eh?” Trying somehow to get 
Guy’s goat. Kirie even challenged his manhood. 

Guy answered in turn, cutting him to the core. 
"Nice try. But 1 don’t go for little kids just out of their 
nappies." 

Kirie had never forgotten that humiliation. “Son 
of a hitch. He thinks the whole fucking world revolves 
around him?” 

“And who the hell do you think he is? He's 
Riki’s life partner. The guy you’re hitiing on could have 
iih pick of the litter. He’s the one who's gonna do the 
choosing. Not you.” 

I “Hey, don’t take it so hard. Compared to Riki 
we’re all kids." 

I It probably all started then. In the true sense of 
tile term he became of aware of “Riki" as an extension 
of “Bison.” Two years had passed since. Kirie was still 
treated as the runt of the pack, and he had never turned 
down the heat on the slow boil of emotions in his heart. 

On the other hand, Riki considered Kirie a 
fucking pain in the neck. The bile welling up in his gut 
could not be so easily quelled. This wasn't the first time 
Ktrie’s provocative attitude had gotten to him, and il 
wasn’t exactly calming being jammed together with all 
these crowds either. 

He was so overcome with disgust that he almost 
wanted to hurl. He walked along as if swept up in the 
human tide, and eventually the nausea in the pit of 
his stomach became a ball of scorching nettles. As he 











86 


Ai No Kusabi The Space Between 


approached the “sampling'" booths situated in the center 
of the plaza, his gut all but clenched up. ’ 

Within the walls of people were a collection 
of “pets” that constituted the “main attractions" of the 
auction. These were the “display items” put on show 
for the general public. During ihe auction itself, a great 
variety of pets would go on sale in each and ever) 
auction hall. 1 

Inside resplendency furnished rooms that 
had been further partitioned into cubicles for each 
manufacturing center, the pets were hardly timorous 
as they awaited their turn. These were each center s 
debut “performers.” The variety of sexes, skin, hair 
and eye color notwithstanding, the supple symmetry 
of Iheir limbs and their graceful physiognomies did not 
disappoint. All their relative merits matched up across 
the board. I 

The latest hot-selling line was a crossbred, 
humanoid lemur—tail included. Size and genetic mix 
were variegated, with each boasting its own unique and 
individualized coloring. Among them, “Exile” from the 
Galott company line stood out from the crowd with Iter 
refined appearance and the excellent pell of her tail. 

Along with Exile, all the Galott ornamental 
lemurs were neutered females. Luxia’s “Melude” took a 
decidedly inferior position to the Galott line, but because 
they could be paired off and bred to produce numerically 
superior offspring, almost overnight a frenzied breeding 
fad had broken out among the region's newly moneyed 
and the Commonwealth’s privileged classes. ' 

The real eye-catchers among the potpourri 




STRANGER 


87 


of booths, the stars of the show, were the Academy- 
manufactured pets. 

Translucent golden hair. Finely-textured white 
skin. Moist red lips. Delicate and youthful features 
that made sexual identity difficult to discern, but 
contradictor! ly, at the same time cast off a strange and 
alluring charm that sent a chill up the spine. 

Of course the listed opening prices were 
ten times the average, putting them in a completely 
different league. Once the auction started the bids would 
undoubtedly exceed that several limes over. For those 
who pul their hearts and souls into “refined works of art" 
and spared neither time nor money, Ihey certainly had 
reason to think so. 

Long-renowned masterpieces known as “pure 
blood breeds” were sold in government-sanctioned pet 
shops in the central metropolis of Tanagura under the 
official brand of the Academy Science Center. 

These were the prized end-products of working 
unhindered at the bleeding edge of biotechnology. 
Moreover, not mere human replicas, but only those 
“■original" creations that had been perfected down to the 
blood, down to the genes, were officially recognized. 
The sheer beauty of the Academy pels justified such 
overarching pride. 

This pride meant that Academy-manufactured 
pets alone were allowed to coolly snub the looks of 
jealousy and envy streaming through the glass. Each 
unique certification of pedigree symbolized their 
unwavering pride and self-confidence. 

Naturally, as “pets,” whatever degree of “added 










88 


Ai No Kusabi - The Space Between 


value" they possessed in no way entailed considerations 
of their dignity as a "human beings." 

Once a year, the spectacular exhibition that 
was the Midas Pet Auction pulled back the curtain on 
fanagura's up and coming industries. However, it was 
a grim fact that its reputation in the outside world had 
been extremely poor a mere fifty years before. d 

"An old-school slave trade," it was called. "A 
showcase for human rights violations.” 

The whirlwind of criticism blowing in from 
the Commonwealth capital was scathing and endless. 
Not only ihe auction but the existence of Midas itself, a 
symbol of all that was hedonistic and dissolute, set their 
nerves on edge. * 

A citadel of pleasure without night or day. 
beyond race and sex and morality—if that was the face 
Midas showed to the world, then the conspiratorial face 
of machinulions and money was the ugly, sad reality il 
revealed in the shadows. s 

It was Tanagura with that nest of injustice tucked 
into its back pocket. The Commonwealth's collective 
countenance was already twitching in abhorrence, and 
this only gnawed at its wounded self-respect. $ 

Independent city-states have often established 
federations to maintain and preserve the mutual quid 
pro quo of economic and political relationships. But 
claiming autonomy does not make one independent. 
Few such cities are truly independent in every respect, 
Rather, a handful of large municipalities are absorbed 
into a greater "umbrella city" undet the rubric of a 


STH4NGER 


80 


“commonwealth,” which are in truth little more than 
subordinate autonomous regions functioning largely as 
defacto colonies. 

Among them, regardless of the governing 
commonwealth, regardless the presence or lack of 
outside interference, and yielding to no one, was 
Tanagura. 

Amoy was the twelfth planet in the Garan star 
system. A small, outlying planet rarely visited even 
by criminals fleeing tire law. It lacked any outstanding 
resources or veins ot precious ores and was originally 
inhabited by no sentient living creatures. Even the 
Commonwealth inspections conducted routinely every 
few years had halted and had not been resumed. 

For a long span of time this impoverished 
star system had not seen any Commonwealth-directed 
colonization or immigration. Then at the beginning of 

one year, a ship from the Abis Think Tank made planet- 
fall. 

Determined to think "out of the box,” and 
with the goal of creating a prototypical metropolis 
unconstrained by political pressures or religious taboos, 
they set about constructing Tanagura. A large number 
of scientists were brought to Tanagura with the aim of 
furthering human intelligence and prosperity, eventually 
giving birth to the supercomputer called Jupiter. 

Every scrap of available information and huge 
amounts of data were made available to the memory' 
banks of the artificial intelligence, not with the intent of 
adding layer upon layer of "book learning,” but rather to 






90 


Ai No Kusabi The Space Between 


endow it with an advanced sense of the self. -j 

One day it suddenly awakened to the truth of its 
own existential reality. Its so-called human “creators" 
could only regard what ensued as the crazed behavior of 
a lunatic. Declared the computer; m 

“Only those in to exercise power should wield rr." 
This was how it answered the unheard of 
“offense” that a computer should be forced to kowtow 
to human beings. As a result, the hegemony of power 
was taken from the people of Tanagura and vested in the 
central cortex of the city that was Jupiter. « 

The once impoverished planet of Amoy looked 
up at an immutable, lavender blue sky. shot through with 

starlight. * ( 1 

By the time the cities of the Commonwealth 

took notice of this new reality and erupted in a panic. 
Tanagura had already transfigured this grotesque 
metropolis and tamed its human inhabitants. It quietly 
grew more and more sure of itsell as it ignored its noisy 
surroundings, and went about its work precisely and 
promptly, with an almost cold aloofness, 

The “metallic city” the epitome of functional 
beauty and cool rationality, proved itsel fan organizational 
masterpiece, a showcase of efficiency and cleanliness. 
The coldly serene visage it offered was one untouched 
by the ordinary grime of human existence and warmth. 

With calm, unflagging patience, cameras peered 
from every nook and cranny, extending Jupiter’s “sell 
to the furthest reaches of its networked nervous system. 

Having exceeded the knowledge of its creators 
and sown fear far and wide, what would it grasp lor 


STRANG Eft 


91 


next? Might it become the Almighty God its own name 
suggested, served by newly energized ranks of androids 
and a brain trust of its own choosing and education? 

So Tanagura attempted to bring to pass even 
greater prosperity by repudiating the shackles of 
flesh and blood that defined the boundaries of human 
existence and rejecting the limits of human mortality. 

Quite simply, none other but this deformed 
conclusion could have ever been bom out of the wild 
delusions of Jupiter's ego. Herein was a reality, a 
glimpse of an eventual future in which human beings, 
who were bound by the irrevocable limits of death, 
would be brought forth to sen e immortal machines. 

As was to be expected, the Commonwealth 
city-states made their displeasure clear and raised their 
voices high in bitter criticism. In every era the strong 
have grown I at feasting on the weak; there was no need 
to dive into the history books for examples. This was 
the same law of nature the Commonwealth regents 
themselves ruthlessly practiced. 

1 he rules of this law dictated that one day they 
nught find themselves in the same position as the vassal 
cities now prostrated at their feet. There but for the grace 
of God went themselves. 

t Day after day, Tanagura further solidified 
its position without taboos or constraints, driven 
by advances in biotechnology and electronics that 
foreshadowed the coming era. 

The Commonwealth officials sensed the threat 
with an almost unfathomable revulsion, but they could 
not deny that they were dependent on what was now 




92 


At No Kusabi - The Space Between 


available to them. With this in mind, the Commonwealth 
began to make careful note of their true feelings on the 

subject. m 

And before anyone knew it, the pointed, public 

criticisms and the voices calling for abolishment of the 
detestable Pet Auctions began to diminish. In a mere 
fifty years, their personal morals and sensibilities went 
to rack and ruin, as if plunging oil a cliff. dfl 

Foolish fads ran rampant, people flocking 
together like squawking birds of a feather, showing up 
in Midas to paint their names in lights. It became the 
new barometer of political and financial power. 

The greatest thrill and the biggest turn -on is 
the power over life and dehth. Such declarations were 
bandied about as a matter of course as they swaggered 
tin rough the Pleasure Quarters and swarmed to the Pet 
Auctions with money to bum. 

That in time good and evil should become 
accommodated to each other is perhaps only human 
nature. Take things far enough and evil becomes good 
Against the backdrop of such a reality, human character 
was no doubt likely to come up short as the wheels of 
reason spun off their bearings. fl 

Perhaps because the S-class auction showing 
the Academy-manufactured pets—the odds-on favorites 
in any competition—opened at three o’clock, the Hood 
of people pouring towards Mistral Park had not abated 
since noon. 

An enthused din engulfed the pavilions and 
spilled into the plaza, where the warm wind of hum: n 


STRANGER 


9l 


breath seemed to stick to the skin. The unpleasantness 
made Riki cluck his tongue in distaste. That was when 
he unexpectedly felt someone looking hard at him. This 
was no phantom sensation. It coiled about him like 
a python, uninterrupted by the onrushing currents of 
human flesh. 

* What the hell^S 

Slogging against the tide, he felt it strongly 
enough to still him in his tracks. 

“Hey! Don't go stopping like that!” 

“What’s this bastard stopping for?" 

“Yo! Move it buster!" 

Volleys of abuse hilling him about the head and 
shoulders, Riki slowly turned, scanning the crowds. 

"Rikj? What's up?” Guy asked curiously, 
brought to a halt alongside him. 

However, Riki was not inclined to answer as the 
vexing, ensnaring gaze drew away ahead of him. 

Where s it coming from? 

It could be anybody, chafing at him in a way he 
didn't understand. 

p. He drew his brows together, narrowed his eyes, 
and then, abruptly, their eyes locked. A leaden darkness 
engulfed him like the sudden lifting of a midnight fog on 
a moonless night. The impudent gaze bore into his eye 
sockets like a drill through soft wood. 

Riki stood there stock still, as if his motor 
functions had been paralyzed by a powerful electric 
shock. His opponent’s face alone rose up clearly and 
distinctly in the midst of the shadows swimming through 
his field of vision. 




94 


Ai No Kusabt The Space Between 


The visage displayed a kind of deeply chiseled 
beauty that would prompt even the revered Academy* 
manufactured pets to mb their eyes in surprise. It was 
a beauty so exceeding that by itself it invited feelings 
of awe. His eyes were shaded by tinted sunglasses, yet , 
there was no confusing where his attention was focused. 

He stared down Riki. not moving a muscle. I 

Riki's heart raced like pistons knocking in his ' 
chest. In his wide and astonished eyes, and all through 
his awkwardly stiff body, the currents of time festered, 1 
thickened, and seemed to run backwards. The raging 
stroke of his heartbeat pounded mercilessly, clawing ; 
at his throat, wrenching open the ever green eyes ot 

memory. 11 I 

Guy whispered to him. “Hey, Riki. \ou know ■ 

this guy?” The stillness between the two of them made 
the question seem like a cough in a quiet concert hall. j 
“You’re kidding me, right?” A slightly hoarse tremor 
crept into his voice. Unable to avert his eyes from the 
man ’s stunning countenance, Guy said again. “Right? ’ ■ 

His voice emerged in a clumsy whisper, throttled 9 
by a barrier in the air. Kirie broke the wall of silence | 
with a whistle. “Holy cow, would you look at that! He’s j 
got some mane on him. And a Blondy—■” Kirie signaled I 
the rest of the sentence with a jerk of his chin. 

A long-haired . . . Blondy. Little wonder that ; 
Kirie looked on in blank amazement. Flaunting the j 
power of his own presence, his simple and functional j 
outfit in the midst of the extravagantly clad crowds had j 
the contrary effect drawing people s attention, 

It was the sort of bodysuit particular to Tanagura 



STRANGER 


95 


and worn by the elites, who generally wore their hair 
long to distinguish themselves from the androids. 
These elites possessed balanced proportions, perceptive 

demeanors, 300-plus IQ brains, and reproductivelv 
sterile engi neered bodies. 

Hair color was determined according to the 
NORAM hierarchal caste system. Those with external 
responsibilities, namely the administrators who 
functioned as the “face” of Tanagura, were known 
as Onyx, with black hair. Their advisors, subdivided 
according to the fields of their individual specialties, 
were Ruby, Jade, and Sapphire. The silver hair of Platina 
identified those in various high leadership positions. 

; The “elite of ihe elite,” with the authority to 

communicate directly with Jupiter, were the Blondy. 
Mongrel types from the slums rarely had the opportunity 
admire these “gods ot beauty" up close like this. It was a 
ooce in a lifetime opportunity, if there ever was one. 

I Kine piped up. “Hey, that guy’s still looking 

ai us! He interested in us or what? Should we wave 
back?” 

Kirie s banter had become something of 
an accepted joke among his mates, and it was up to 
somebody to play the straight man. or deliver a cutting 
come back. And then Lhey’d all laugh and be done with 
it That was the customary pattern. 

But this time Riki lashed back in a foul mood. 
“Idiot! This isn’t the time or place! If you've got the time 
to talk shit, then bugger off and do it someplace else!" 

I Had Kirie been touched by the poisonous air 
of the auction? Or was it Riki? A bit dumbfounded 

















96 


Ai No Kusabi - The Space Between 


themselves, Sid and Norris attempted to pacify Riki. 
“Hey, Riki, what you so serious about'.’ 1 ' 

“Yeah, yeah. It’s just Kirie being his regular 

stupid self." J 

"What? That guy’s giving us the eye. We gotta 

chance. Let’s take it, okay?” Kirie said, his tone of voice 

strangely strained with excitement, “Look, it s a fucking 

Blontly! Okay? One of those super-elite types that hardly 

ever shows up in Midas!’ 

Kirie’s fevered, mismatched eyes were getting 

on Riki’s nerves, but Kirie wasn't stopping. “We’ve got 
nothing to lose! It may be one chance in a million, but 
I’m not standing here sucking my thumb and giving it a 

pass, C’mon, let’s go!" v 

For a brief moment, Kirie's manner of speaking 

was the very picture ot fearlessness* qj 

Riki furrowed his brows and held his tongue, but 

it wasn’t because he was suddenly at a loss for words. 
Without realizing it, his clenched fists had begun to 
tremble. The back of his throat ached. He’d been struck 
by the inescapable feeling that he was being shown the 
powerful resemblance between Kirie and himself. 

What the hell —/ Riki ground his back teeth. 

Whv? How? Of all things, why now? . 1 

Kirie stood in front of him with a triumphant 

smile on his lips. For the first time his body burned hotly 
with the prospect of putting Riki in his place, and unlike 
before, he fell not a pang of apprehension in his gut. "It's 
too bad you and your charisma haven't got the balls for 

the fight anymore. Your era is over. ’ I 

Bui the pleasure of knocking him up the side 


STRANGER 


97 


ot the face with words alone was completely different, 

like it’d become nothing more than a verbal tic. Pushing 

Guy and Riki aside, Kirie triumphantly set off at a brisk 
pace. 

“You okay with this, Riki? Just letting him go 
like that? Guy asked, in a concerned voice. His eyes 
followed Kirie as he darted into the tide of humanity, 
bobbing up and down between the waves. 

"Let him do what he wants," Riki said simply, a 
pissed expression on his face. 

Yet the hard, throbbing pain remained. It had 
nothing to do with Kirie's verbal shots but with his own 
resolve. Without a glance in Kirie’s direction, he looked 
ahead of him to confirm the continuing presence of the 
Blondy, When he did, as he might have expected, the man 
was smiling. A cold smile, only the barest comers of his 
thm lips turning up. It wasn’t a mirage or a hallucination. 
He was smiling as if to laugh Riki to scorn. 

In that moment, a burning sense of indignation 
arose deep within him and brought out goosebumps on 
his skirt. The impulse to wipe that cold, condescending 
smile off the man’s fucking face and kick the shit out of 
him so overwhelmed him that Riki's vision misted red. 

Kine and the man s exquisite countenance 
disappeared from sight, dragged along by human 
currents. Urged along by Guy. Riki sullenly bit his lip 

and started walking as a heavy, indescribable gloom 
gripped his stomach. 













Chapter 5 

That night Riki holed up alone in a bar on the 
outskirts for some serious drinking. It wasn't a dive 
lie usually frequented, but he came here for no other 
purpose than to get drunk. Here, nobody knew his name. 
It was like sitting at the bottom of the dark ocean atop a 
lukewarm thermal vent, 

I He sat at the bar, way in the back. In the 

subterranean tavern the only other illumination came 
from the blue glow arising from the glass in his hand. 
The faint light seemed to draw a line between himself 
and the Throaty, seductive voices and the hoots and jeers 
burbling up from the pool tables. 

He drained each tumbler in rapid succession, but 
he didn’t feel the slightest bit intoxicated. The memory 
of that chance encounter in Mistral Park stuck in his head 
like a bullet in the brain; the poisonous gaze penetrating 
the waves of the crowds, the striking and conspicuous 
countenance, the vividly felt presence. 

And that cold smile that looked right through 

I him. 

The freeze-frame of that last moment was 
enough to make his blood boil, to make every nerve 
ending tingle with electric fire. As far as coincidences 
went, this reunion had been too real, too raw. The nausea 
welled up and his heartbeat raced at the mere thought 

I alone. 




100 


Ai No Kusabi - The Space Between 


Still —stiff —lie had forgotten nothing. Not the 
perfect proportions of that Adonis, nor the cruel blue 
eyes hidden behind shaded lenses. Like a talisman 
etched into his retinas, the mere traces of the afterimage 
brushing the borders of his vision alone could throw the 
switch, bringing back to reality those three years effused 
with rage and shame, M 

Ills resoundingly cool voice—-a voice full of 
unwavering confidence—was inseparably trapped in the 
echo chamber of his ears. a 

fas on Mink. The name on the tip of his tongue 
tasted like a harsh, bitter pill crushed between his teeth. 

The wellspring of all that bitterness still 
occupied his thoughts. From this day forward, no matter 
how deeply he mired himsel f in the sewer of the slums, 
he would never heal this wound himself. ) 

The tingling blood lust showed in his deeply 
furrowed brows, in the angry squint in the corners of his 
eyes, making his otherworldly nature clear. What had 
been flying beneath the radar of his consciousness now 
climbed into clear skies. The true heart of the stranger, 
having lapsed into a dense, stagnant, levered delirium, 
now blazed back to life. i 

“Hey, who's the bloke?” ■ 

“Got me. New face around here.” ■ 

The buzz ran through the place in a matter-of- 
fact manner, 

“Man. that's one bad looking dude.” 

“Yeah. Let’s tear him a new one.” m 

“Hey, hey, before you go starting something, 
don’t you think we should send word to Jigg first?" 


















102 Ai No Kusabi - The Space Between 

The stirrings of interest in the bar were 
something more than idle curiosity, and suddenly 
erupted into a bonfire as a lanky fellow with a tawny 
crew cut casually strode up to Riki. 1 

“Shit, that's Jango.” 1 

“Yeah, you’re right It's Jango.” ] 

“Jango, you say?” 1 

“See for yourself. Jango, God's own Grim 
Reaper.” 1 

“Serious?” M 

This was the dingo that was rumored to have 
provoked the current conflict between Maddox and 
Jeeks, and his appearance in the bar cast a whole new 
light on everything. As to'how a mere informant came 
to be called the “Grim Reaper.” nobody really knew 
the details or the truth of the situation. Just the swirling 
tendrils of rumor and innuendo. I 

“The man is possessed.” | 

“A guy who tried to cuckold him met a bad end, 
You don't want to know." fl 

“Look him in the eye and your blood runs 
cold.” I 

“Word is, gangs that locked horns with him got 
in way over their heads and ended up in pieces." 1 

Rumors led to rumors, multiplying as the number 
of mouths multiplied, arousing fear and revulsion that 
remained at a safe distance and under the breath. 

Impervious as ever to the noisy reactions around 
him, Riki raised the empty glass to the bartender, who 
handed him a refill without objection or being prompted 
Riki eyed it suspiciously. 




STRANGER 


103 


“Your friend bought you one,” the bartender 
said, with an ingratiating smile. 

For the first time, Riki looked at the man who’d 
occupied the seat next to him and softly clucked his 
tongue. Drinking himself under the table in a squalid 
bar at the end of town, the casual observer making note 
of the glasses piling up would no doubt jump to the 
same conclusion. But it irked Riki that any guy should 
consider hitting on him in his present state. 

The man's cropped haircut was distinct and set 
the his profile apart: as a result, lie radiated a somewhat 
foreign ambience, bet no matter whose perspective it 
was, lie was not Riki's cup of lea. Far from it. Staring 
at the man with upturned eyes, he growled. “Buster, if 
you’re trying to pick me up. take it someplace else.” 

“You think I’m stupid enough to try and drag 
you into bed with a couple of drinks?” He laughed in a 
strangely meaningful manner. “So, you always been a 
bard-ass like this?” 

The carnivorous cynicism in such a smile 
momentarily aroused in Riki a curious sense of deja vu. 
This guy — somewhere — 

This unknown man took in his intense gaze and 
chuckled to himself. “The third time around, and you're 
still talking to me like that?” 

The third time around -— More feelings of deja 
vu burned in Riki's brain. 

“Sorry that i didn't hit you hard enough the last 

time to leave a bigger impression.” 

Riki squinted at him. “Robby—is it?” 

The man—Robby, that is—downed the contents 








104 


Ai No Kusabi The Space Between 


of the glass in his hand. "‘Well, at least it came to you 
eventually. I'm overjoyed. Better if you didn’t need 
a multiple choice test, though, Man, you've changed, 
haven’t you?” 

Riki took a good, long look at Robby—so long 
that he became conscious of time passing. “So what 
have you been eating to make you so fucking big?” 

The sarcasm was entirely beside the point Not 
having seen Robby in almost eight years, there wasn’t 
much left of the fragments o memories left in his mind. 
What he did remember of him was the discord and 
antagonism from the Guardian foster center. 

“It's funny, don't you think? As fang as you 
had Guy, you didn i need ‘anybody else, right?" A 
careless smile coining to his pursed lips, ‘7 lost the most 
important thing in my life , You alone being happy is 
what J can '( forgive. So you re losing something too!" 

A piercing cry. And then ... 

“ You 're okay with that? You tv really oka y with that 

At the very last, shown a gl impse of his true fury, 

]t seemed a sin that of all the memories stuck in 
his head from Guardian, only the ones involving Robby 
remained. Indeed, like waiting for the hopeful fairy at 
the very botlom of Pandora's Box, all he could do was 
bite his lip and ride it out. 

“Looks like you’re doing okay." 

“Thanks. But you haven't changed at all.” 

A crooked smile of self-derision momentarily 
twisted Riki's lips. “What's that supposed to mean?” lie 
spat, the words bitter in his mouth. 

How much had he changed these past several 


STRANGER 


ins 


years? Enough to scald his soul. “Means you haven’t 
changed.” Robby said simply, before quickly adding. 
“Guardian or the slums, whether Mr. Charisma or the 
underdog, you've always been a stranger.” 

A beat. 

It felt like being kicked in an old. throbbing 
wound. Riki narrowed his eyes to slits. With no 
sign of fear, Robby pressed the point with an almost 
lackadaisical air, apparently intending to rub Riki the 
wrong way. “I get it now, what Schell realty meant 
back then when lie said you were the strongest and the 
prettiest. You're some freak of nature, man.” 

“Exactly what is it you want to say?" Riki's low', 
harsh whisper sharpened to a point. Even the stagnanl, 
alcohol-saturated haze of cigarette smoke seemed to 
retreat, giving him a wider berth. 

"Maybe what 1 m saying is that you never figured 
out for yourself what makes you so damned scary. And 
that’s why you sucked the life out of everybody.” 

A second later Riki had tossed the contents of 
his glass in Robby's face. Absorbed in the scene, an 
audible gasp arose from the mouths of the onlookers. 
There was God's Grim Reaper, and this crazy son of a 
bitch was seriously calling him out. He must be out of 
his fucking mind. 

Riki slapped the money for the tab on the 
countertop and got to his feet. Acting as if nothing had 
happened, and without the slightest hitch in his voice, 
Robby spit the booze out of his mouth and looked up at 
him. 

“As soon as you left Guardian, Schell slarted 





106 


Ai No Kusabi - The Space Between 


regressing back to an infantile state. After that, he didn't 
last half a year. It was like, as soon as the two of you 
were separated, something shriveled up inside of him 
and the lights went out. That's how it ended for him.” 

If Riki didn’t intend to stick around for more of 
Robby’s reminiscing, he sure as hell wasn’t interested 
in them licking old wounds together. But Robbv held 
back the best for last and aimed his shot straight for the 
heart. 

“Besides, there's Junker as well. He disappeared 
from Guardian just like Haruka" 

Riki’s feet briefly stuck to the floor. “Junker—?” 
His mind’s eyes flashed back to Junker's young face, 
now little more than a shadow ... .-m 

“But I guess that's not a subject you'd be 

interested in—” 4 

These were words that plunged the knife once 
more into his chest. His heart ached in ways he found 
hard to articulate. As if to put Guardian and the rest 
of it behind him. Riki didn’t give Robby so much as a 
backwards glance. 1 

Robby watched Riki leave, not moving an 
inch. His curtness up till then had been, contrary to 
appearances, suffused with melancholy. Even alter Riki 
had vanished from the edges of his sight, the connection 
between them still lingered for a while longer. 

“Man, what are you looking so down for? Not 
the kind of face God’s Grim Reaper wants seen in 

public." | 

The sudden voice brought Robby back to his 


STRANG Mi 


107 


senses. He didn't hear any particular strain of cynicism 
in the voice. Like a light flicking on in the ocean depths 
of his casually raised eyes, he recognized a red-haired 
youngster and the tension slipped from his shoulders. 

“Not only are you late for our appointment,” the 
boy pouted, “But 1 find you with your eyes all over some 
nobody.” He sat down on the barstool, still warm from 
Riki’s body heat. “And in the end, he throws his beer in 
your face and blows you off. Isn’t that what they call 
striking out?” 

Wiping the booze from his face with his sleeve, 
Robby didn't bother asking him whether he was actually 
asking him, or it was merely a rhetorical question. 

“Well? Who was lie?" The kid kicked the rung 
on Robby’s barstool in a sudden fit of temper. “Don’t 
you blow me off, neither. If you've got a good excuse, 
let's hear it. Or if you like. Til run the bastard down and 
hear it from him.” 

“Shut up. Get on that bastard’s bad side and 
you'll end up the worse for it.” 

“Huh. So you’re breaking up with me then?” 

“No. I mean he's one crazy dangerous guy." 

"How crazy dangerous?” he pressed, leaning 
forward. 

Robby sighed aloud. Why the hell was he so 
taken with this pissy little kid who didn't look a thing 
like Schell? But if he tried to explain himself, this 
cocksure kid would light into him with both barrels: 
What the fuck are you saying'.' 1 You think f was the only 
one curious about hooking up with the famous Grim 
Reaper? 






I OK 


Ai No Kusabi - The Space Between 


"I le was a blockmate when we were at Guardian 
together. Haven’t seen him in a long time," Robby said 
in a disinterested air, choosing his words carefully. 

After eight years, Riki really had been the last 
person on earth he'd expected to run into. The moment 
he’d caught a glimpse of Riki out of the comers of 
his eyes, his blood stirred in his veins and his whole 
body started to tremble. His heart and soul weren’t 
throbbing out of some terrible nostalgia. The sense he 
got from Riki’s unexpected presence in a dead-end bar 
at the outskirts of lown the only place where such an 
anomaly could slip between the cracks - was enough to 
make his throat bum. 

Driven on by these Strange feelings of hunger 
and thirst, Robby had no choice but to approach Riki. 
But as they talked, the fever gripped him all the fiercer, 
shaking his body like the clammy churning of his viscera 
or the trembling of hypothermia. 

“Yeah, but what's your excuse?" 

In fact, that incident had been the end product 
of the antagonism whirling around Riki at Guardian, and 
he was the only eye witness to the truth. No, at the lime, 
the “truth” that had rent in two the borderline between 
reality and fantasy—what exactly had he seen? Robby 
still didn't know for certain. * 

Just that whatever aura enveloped Riki scorched 
all five of his senses. The fear and stark winder ihat 
oozed from the pores of his skin like cold sweat had 
burned into the deepest parts of his memory. 

Schell, the foundation of his heart, had died. 
And even Junker, the instigator of the incident, had at 


STRA NGER 


109 


some point vanished from Guardian. Still, the sense of 
dysphoria in the pit of his stomach had haunted Robby 
all these eight years, too often screaming back at him in 
a waking nightmare. 

"Maybe he was the firsi one you gave it up to?” 

“I’m not that reckless or stupid.” 

“You don’t say! So now you're telling me there's 
a player out there who can cow the badass Jango?” 

“A player, hub." The remark wasn't necessarily 
wide of the mark, and Robby responded with a cynical 
half-smile. If he was ihe Grim Reaper and hell followed 
alter him. then Riki must be that rare, vampiric beast 
that seduced men and then sucked their souls dry. “Yeah, 
maybe so. After all, he was known as Varja," 

“Vaija?” 

Robby gently grabbed the youngster by the roots 
of his red hair and whispered softly in his ear, “Thai guy 
was the Varja of the slums. Riki of B ison.” 

Watching the kid’s eyes fly open wide, Robby 
stifled a laugh from deep within his chest. 

That day, a strange, cold rain clouded the skies 
since dawn. As a result, the rotting, garbage-strewn 
streets, the ruined walls of the colony, and everywhere 
else rested in peace and seemed to draw u sigh of relief. 

Yet, the rusted and corroded hours slogged by 
in the shadow of the garish Midas night, blanketed by 
she dark veil of the low-lying skies. Groaning deeply to 
himself as he dragged his leaden feet and ass along, for 
ihe first time in a while Riki made his way alone to the 
safe house. 



110 


Ai No Kusabi The Space Between 


Kirie wasn't there in his face, haunting his every 
step. That the little eyesore was nowhere to be seen was 
enough to drain some of the tension from his shoulders, 
but he was still left with a strange feeling of malaise. He 
couldn’t help but be struck by the fact that the absence 
of Kirie alone would suck so much energy out of the 
place. 

“Yo,” Guy said, spotting Riki. He rose from the 
sofa, passing around a glass as if urging him to drink, 
“What a drag, man. Where the hell you been? Got to 
thinking you’d picked yourself a different crib to crash 
in. 

Riki quenched his thirst with one gulp and 
raised his eyes. Guy shrugged this shoulders. “Yeah, he's 
a whiny brat, but when he’s 1101 around it never seems 
there's anything to talk about.” 

Riki just looked at him, 

“He hasn’t been very sociable oflate.” 

“All for the best, no?” Riki said bluntly. “I’m 
sure a kid like him has got plenty of other children to 
hang around with.” 

“Hey, you know that’s not true,” Guy countered. 
H is tone of voice revealed a degree of worry and concern 
about which he was powerless to alleviate. He looked 
softly into Riki’s eyes. 

“What?” | 

“What do you mean, what?” Guy asked, beating 
around the bush. When he saw that he wasn’t about to 
break through Riki's poker expression, he sighed. “Well, 
whatever, I guess.” 

He drained the glass with an air of resignation. 


STRANGER 


111 


Regardless of how Guy really fell, Riki honestly couldn’t 
have cared where Kirie was, who he was with, or what 
he was doing. 

It's got nothing to do with me. 

! Dismissing the subject, Riki also meant to 

vanquish that sense of Iason’s existence coiled around 
his innards. Attempting to forcibly push it to the 
peripheries of his brain, he changed the subject. 

■ “Guy—” 

■ “Yeah?” 

1 he ice broken, Riki continued in a disinterested 
tone of voice. “I ran into Robby." 

[ Guy's eyes widened and Riki shot him a skeptical 

glance, juggling his glass in one hand as he talked about 
not recognizing Robby’s face after eight years, Schell’s 
death, and the mystery oI Junker’s disappearance. 

While Riki spoke, Guy only responded with the 
occasional “Huh” and “Really?” and other meaningless 
conversational noises. When Riki arrived at the end of 
his narrative, Guy warned him in a muted tone. “Riki, 
Robby is bad news all the way. Best to not get involved 
with him.” 

I As much as he hated to admit it, Riki had become 

aware that more than the appearance of the slums had 
changed in those three lost years, and it wouldn’t be easy 
filling in the gaps. 

“What kind of bad news?” 

"He’s a dingo. An informant. A real badass that 
people call God's Grim Reaper,” 

Yet the look on Guy’s face suggested a degree 
of persona] disl ike that was less than what the intensity 




112 At No Kusabi - The Space Between 

of liis words suggested. As Riki gazed back at him. 
the cynical smile on Robby's completely changed 
countenance came to mind. 

“That’s harsh, man.” 

“Hang with Robby and people arc bound to 
jump 10 the wrong conclusion about you.” i 

“He’s hooked up with Jeeks?” 

“That’s right,” Guy stated, in an unusually 
assertive manner. “For every one of us possessed by the 
ghosts of Bison, there are those tanning the flames from 
the sidelines, and opportunists waiting for the chance to 
take us out.” 

Riki—or rather, Guy and the others— had taken 
the wind-blown remnants of the Bison and continued 
to bum in a different form, their sentimentality and 
expectations placed on indefinite hold. 

Not to mention that the Jeeks gang now made 
no secret of their call to extinguish Bison. Returning to 
his old haunts alter three years, Riki had unwittingly 
brought with him a gust of glowing embers back into a 
roaring flame. 

The shadowy rumors that Bison's resurrection 
might be at hand were little more than comical 
speculation to Guy and the others, but they could not 
simply be swept aside. q 

“Yeah, but it's all bullshit, right?” Riki 
murmured dully, j 

Alt Guy could do was flash a wry smile. Not 
long thereafter, his more pressing concern became a 
reality in one fell swoop; the crumbling building they 
used as their headquarters and safe house was blown to 


STRANGER 


f 13 


bits in a single, raging inferno. 

In the blink of an eye, the rumors raced through 
the slums. 

L “Hey, looks like il finally started.” 

“So it seems.” 

“You hear about it too?" 

"Yeah. Henna’s crib got smashed to 
smithereens.” 

“He who strikes first wins the day, eh?” 

The buzz of shock and amazement. 

“Jeeks is taking drastic measures.” 

“Those little bastards of his know no fear." 

“Thai’s for sure. But only because they got no 
clue how great Bison was at its peak,” 

And more fervent than the blindly enthusiastic 
acclaim, the handicapping of the opposition. 

“Even Maddox is running scared now.” 

“You think Jeeks got the jump on him?” 

“If anybody does, it's gotta be Jeeks." 

And a touch of anxiety welling up. 

“Maddox and his mates gotta be stamping their 
feet in frustration.” 

“That’s just a feint, don’t you think? Word is, 
they’re waiting for Bison and Jeeks to cannibalize each 
other before moving in for the kill.” 

“And take the lion's share for themselves?” 

“But that doesn't mean they've got it in the bag 
already." 

“Yeah. After all. Bison quit when they were at the top." 

Meanwhile, the intense interest in every scrap of 






114 


Ai No Kusabi - The Space Between 


information did not flag. 

"It's only a matter of time before lota) war 
breaks out." 

“You really think so?” d 

“Bet your ass. Getting hit like that in broad 
daylight and doing nothing—the name of Bison ain't 
worth crap anymore." 

Venting feelings of impending doom. 

“You think Riki’s going to make a move?” 

“Naw. What can that loser do?” 

“Right. Maybe the old Riki. but the new Riki 
came back missing a pair.” 

Bystanders to the real action bitterly bitching 
among themselves. * 

“Those little twerps thal Jeeks has soldiering 
for him aren't the brightest bulbs in the marquee either, 
When it comes to Riki. best to let thal sleeping dog lie.” 

“Diss the Varja of the slums to his face and he’s 
not just going to stand there and take it, is he?” 

“He that bad, this Riki?” 

“What do you think? We're talking about the 
Riki of Bison. So, fuck yeah." 

Shooting the shit with nothing but their own 
egos to guide them by. 9 

“Yeah, it’s gonna be eye tor an eye." X 

“Right down to the flesh and bone." 

And so the rumor-mongering only grew. 

“What do you want to do?” Sid asked. He stood 
in front of the ruins of their old crib and drew himself up 
to his full height, his face fiercer than usual. 


STRANGER 


115 


"What do you want to do?” Norris echoed with 
a dismissive sigh. “Smashed in broad daylight like this, 
what the hell am 1 supposed to do about tt?" 

That wasn’t what Sid had asked, but Norris 
didn’t know how to deal with the real question they were 
faced with. 

“Maybe this will finally be enough to light a fire 
under somebody's ass.” Luke said, as if articulating the 
thoughts of the others. He took a drag from a cigarette 
and kicked the rubble at his feet. 

Riki cast him a sideways glance, a vertical line 
creasing his brows. He couldn’t know for certain, but the 
truth seemed pretty obvious. Beating the tar out of those 
Jeeks kids might not have been the best of ideas. ! ve no 
doubt been showing my true colors for a long time now. 

He wasn’t to blame for everything, bul he 
certainly provided the impetus, struck the spark that lit 
the flame. 

“In any case .. . wc can crash at Laura's." Guy 
suggested, and nobody contradicted him. 

A siege mentality and an unrequited hunger. 
Back during thal brief period of madness and fury when 
they'd tailed the roost in the unregenerate slums, the 
members of Bison had learned the pointless stupidity of 
constantly baring their fangs. But there was simply no 
comparing then and now. 

Then, they could placate their hot-blooded 
emotions and calculate when and where to blow their 
lops, increasing the exact amount of tension to the 
bursting point. 



116 


Ai No Kusabi - The Space Between 


Then, the sight of the charismatic Riki alone 
was enough. His words intoxicated them. They shared 
equally in every moment of his burning zeal. The 
tremendous sense of exuberance that came from being 
around him was more than enough. 

Bui now Riki had nothing to say. The power of 
his charisma had been extinguished and this defanged 
Vaija had no direction to point them in. They must have 
been coming to this realization for a long time now, but 
the mortification! of seeing it displayed right before their 
eyes lay far beyond logic and reason. 

The slums were restless and astir, as if poised on 
the balls of its feet, ready to llee at the slightest notice. 
Trembling, off balance, staring down at its own uncertain 
feet, and cheeking out the face of every stranger. 

Amongst all that, a new rumor made the rounds. 
“Are you shitting me? I heard Kirie’s procuring partners 
for those mechanoid bastards.” J 

“Yeah, I heard it’s a good way to earn a little on 
the side. They say the latest big thing with those types is 
doing it with a human.” 

“They can't even get the professional ladies in 
Midas to look their way, so they set their sights on us 
mongrels?” 

“Idiot. Androids don't get a jonesing for sex like 
that. There’s got to be a catch somewhere.” js 

"Probably. I ley, you know Tom from Creutz? 
He took Kirie up on the offer— half out of curiosity I'm 
sure—but got seriously addicted. Now lie skulks around 
all day looking to get hooked up again.” 


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“You think maybe they're using us as human 
guinea pigs for that new drug? They say you shove it 
up your ass and you come, like, instantaneously. And it 
doesn’t leave a trace behind.” 

“Yeah, but if you’re telling me that’s my one 
ticket to paradise in this world, then regardless of the 
money I’d like to give it a shot just once." 

“No way. I'm telling you, a bunch of fucked-up, 
burned-out guys like us are getting the thumbs down 
from a mile off," 

“Hell, even those guys can’t be too picky, man. 
Anyway, it’s just little kids getting the offers from what 
I hear." 

“Yeah, it's pretty damn obvious they’re 
narrowing the target. I'm telling you, something hinky 
is going down.” 

“And Kirie and the others are taking some sort 

of cut?” 

“Seems so. Bastards have got their bases 
covered.” 

“Tightwads is what they are. You’d think they’d 
want to toss a bit of change to die rest of us. But no.” 

It was hard to tell with Sid when he was joking 
and when he was being serious, so the rest Ql lhem dryly 
and half-heartedly laughed along with him. But once 
that awkward interruption was over, the tedious silence 
again descended. 

No longer able to abide the strained atmosphere, 
Norris broke the ice. “When it comes to stuff like that, Riki 
was the one who did the thinking. He was the one who 
brought us the kind ol stash the slums had never seen." 




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Only reminiscing about the past could tide over 
the listless, wasted hours. 

“1 wonder what the hell he did." Luke pondered. 
Knowing that wasn't enough, he added, “Wouldn’t 
surprise me if he did the same thing Kirie did, you 
know?” Muffled laughter rose in his throat. “Instead of 
selling out his mates, what if somebody got the drop on 
him instead? But isn’t that what Kirie always says?” 

Nobody laughed. After a few moments, Luke’s 
provocative remarks simply evaporated away without 
further comment. 1 

“1 ley, what’s the big deal? Or are you all saying 
1 hit the nail on the head?” 

The derision was'obvious in Luke's irritated 
tone of voice. Despite what he said, Riki let it all 
flow over him like water over polished marble. Luke 
narrowed his eyes more intensely, unable to stomach 
this nonchalance. -M 

“1 really don't care if you think so or not. Go 
ahead and believe whatever you want,” Riki said. 

The blunt brush-off made Luke suck in his 
cheeks in disdain. “You know, Riki, seeing that side 
of you makes me want to puke.” He spit the words out 
in a strained voice, as if wringing the breath out of his 
windpipe. “You piss me off so bad E want to bend you 
over and fuck you up the ass until you’re weeping far 
mercy.” 

Nobody thought this was Luke’s sense of humor 
getting out of hand. The alcohol had revealed the true 
nature of his exasperation, now glistening everywhere 
like sweat on a runner’s body. I 


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119 


Perhaps poisoned by Luke presence, or perhaps 
entangled in his own fierce feelings flailing beneath the 
water’s surface and wanting to hammer the nail down 
in a single blow, Riki responded. “If that’s what you 
want to do, then give it your best shot. But 1 don't want 
to hear any whimpering after I turn you into a dickless 
wonder.” 

Riki delivered the threat deliberately and slowly. 
There was no ragged, angry edge to his voice, only cold 
indifference. Yei the searing fire hidden in his clear black 
eyes like a sheathed sword revealed itself in his strange 
and intimidating aura. Everybody caught their breaths 
and stilled their voices, i hey had seen what they were 
not supposed to see and felt the punishing lash reserved 
for such trespasses. 

A heavy, suffocating silence followed. Unable 
to stand it any longer, Norris abruptly averted his eyes. 
Sid held his breath and id it out. repeatedly licking his 
smarting lips. And Luke made a big show of downing 
his entire bottle in one gulp. 

Guy alone continued 1o stare at Riki with 
troubled eyes. 

Had he dared to assume the pose of a beaten dog 
in order to maintain his freedom? No. That was not the 
case. 

He was a captive of the ghosts of the past, and 
his sin was coming to see himself in those terms alone. 
Was facing the truth directly and being too hardheaded 
to he swayed by emotion all the product of his ego? 

No, it was not the current state of bis pride that 




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stood him in the dock. The party under indictment was 
the passion that had sprung forth from that surprisingly 
naive and clueless period in his life. Though these 
passions had long since spent themselves, the revering, 
upturned eyes all about him had not changed. 

He was far beyond being fed up w ith it all. to the 
point that hts simmering irritation was dose to boiling 
over. He would be a slave to no one. No shackles would 
bind his hands and feet. He would be free, and yet the 
fetters of the past that he wished to casl aside instead held 
him fast, an invisible weight burdening his every step. 

The summer neared its end. It had been 
“summer" in name only, unaccompanied by the heat of 
a scorching sun, a fleeting season that passed quickly by, 
leaving behind only taut and turbulent eddies in the air. 

“Eh?" Norris responded reflexively, as if 
thinking he had somehow heard w'rong. 

Though it was noon, the Laura hideout sat in 
darkness. Norris was sharpening his keepsake butterfly 
knife, to him more a curious artifact of the past than an 
old-school antique. 

"We jump Riki tonight," Luke blurted out. 

“That’s not funny." 

Luke scowled at Guillory and Sid Tm being serious." 

Norris snorted. “Stop talking through your ass. 
Guy will be with him. you know." 

“Hey, haven’t we already plowed this ground? 
It's been over between the two of them for a while now. 
Didn’t you know that?" 


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121 


Finding hims elf at a loss for words, Norris sank 
back into silence. 

“Since Riki’s return, I haven’t heard any talk 
about Yori coming back." 

Norris said mostly to himself, “Doesn’t mean 
a damn thing. You could turn heaven and earth upside 
down and Riki’s never gonna be your bitch." 

Whether they’d broken up for certain or whether 
Guy was taking Yori back, it was all beside the point. Riki 
and Guy were entwined at a much deeper level, deeper 
than the sex. There was more than enough evidence of 
that fact, enough to make him absurdly jealous. 

Luke should know all ihis as well, so why was 
he still beating this drum? Norris couldn’t begin to 
imagine what was going through Luke's mind. 

“Yo, Luke. What're you still holding this grudge 
for? Give it up already . . . even Guy’s not laughing 
anymore. And besides, Riki wasn't yanking your chain 
about what he'd do to you." 

“Yeah, interesting, isn’t it? You all reacting like 
this. Me, frankly I’ve been gelting real bored of Late with 
guys like you sticking their asses out without even being 
asked.” 

He spoke lightly, but if his intention was to 
settle the matter among his mates in a joking manner, it 
didn't help in the slightest. 

“You think maybe you’ve been downing a 
bit too much stout and losing a few brain ceils in the 
bargain?" Norris kicked back on the sofa, stretching out 
his legs, as if asking what sense there was to keeping at 
it like this. 


122 


Ai No Kusabi The Space Between 


Nevertheless, Luke was undeterred. “I'm not 
saying 1 need any of your help. Just that you keep 
yourselves nice and wasted until the deed is done.” 

“Well excuse fucking me.” 

“For old time’s sake, we'll treat this as a joke. 
But not a second time.” 

Luke grinned. “What are you getting all freaked 
out for. Sid? It's been a long time since Riki was running 
Bison and settling scores. It's a little too late now to start 
playing the hero,” J 

“What the hell are you trying to say?” Sid asked. 
In most cases Sid was fairly indifferent to Luke's oddly 
roundabout way of pushing the matter, but this lime 
Luke was really getting on his nerves. 

“The Riki of Bison you used to fawn over is 
nowhere to be seen. You understand? That guy is a 
beaten dog, but he's got the same lucking beautiful body 
as usual. Ass as tight as a drum. Just thinking about him 
down (here makes me hard. No shit. Same for you too? 
That's why you chatted up Kirie, right? Because he's the 
splitting image of the old Riki. But doing the real thing? 
Thatd even get a little pecker like yours up.” 

For a long second. Sid goggled at him with a 
blanched face, as if all the blood had drained from his 
head. Only his bugged-out eyes burned red, as if another 
person had peered inside the heart and laughed and what 
he found there. What Sid was feeling at that moment 
was more the pure blood lust of murderous desire than 
simple rage. 

Rather than having them go at it right then and 
there, Norris cleared his throat ominously. 


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123 


“Look, Sid, when I look at Riki's smug, don’t- 
give-a-shit face, 1 get so pissed I can hardly stand it.” He 
spoke in a completely different register than the cynical 
tone he'd used up till now. In the strangled depths of his 
voice Luke’s true intentions were laid bare. “With the 
old Riki. you got the feeling that an unwelcome touch 
would singe your fingers. I le was on fire, man, a force of 
nature. Just standing next to him was like standing next 
to a roaring fire.” 

The memory was forever green and alive in his 
mind, down to the heat of his body: 

“And Luke! Don t fuck around with the small 
fry! ft's just Barth! Drop the bastard! Okay? Lets not 
screw this up, people /” 

Riki's pep talks tore through the clamor like 
a sweet elixir, giving them an adrenaline rush more 
powerful than any drug. Those coal-black eyes. That 
voice. The pleasant, tingling feeling when he called 
them out by name inspired them to believe that anything 
was possible, no matter how reckless. 

"Despite that indifferent air of his, when he was 
out in front he was a fucking fireball. No matter how 
deep in the shit we were, no matter how crazy things got, 
he was up for whatever came our way.” 

The roar of the tricked-out jet bike leading the 
charge. The hot, slinging blast of air in their faces. That 
veal sense of “oneness” that came when Riki was leading 
the pack was better than the ecstasy of sex. 

Hot. Throbbing. Deafening. Burning. 
Benumbing. 

With Riki at the tip of the spear, standing at his 









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back was like standing behind the white-hot afterburner 
of a jet engine. When Ri ki and Guy were on the bike 
together, it was Guy’s prerogative to make Riki ride 
shotgun, 

‘7/ it's a two-seater, you re in back , Riki. 1 can i 

stand you treating this valuable piece of machinery like 
a toy .” 

It was only in this case that the always reserved 
Guy wouldn’t hand over the keys. It wasn't that the bike 
was valuable. And while it didn’t necessarily constitute a 
criticism of Riki's throttle-wide-open driving style, Guy 
wasn t the only one with his hands over his eyes. As far 
as Guy was concerned, seating Riki behind Itttn was a 
thousand times better than watching his back and having 
the anxiety give him ulcers. 

Not only Luke, but Norris and Sid as well 
(though they wouldn't admit it in so many words} 
wanted to complain. Why is Guy alone allowed special 
privileges like that? 

If such outbursts of jealousy scoured their 
hearts, in lime it would eat them through and through, 

"When you were with Riki you felt the blood 
pounding in your veins, you felt like you could do 
anything, like you weren't afraid of nothing. You 
know?” 

Sid and Norris didn’t hesitate in nodding 
vigorously in response to this indictment. They had been 
similarly bewitched by Riki’s charisma. 

"But when I think about it now, compared to 
what it meant to be the pit bulls of Hot Crack back then, 
were a bunch of runny-nosed kids. That’s why, even 


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125 


when Riki says lie’s quitting Bison and takes off, nobody 
grabbed his ass and hauled him back here.” 

But that was so much crying after spilt milk. 
You're just gonna cast us aside? Maybe if they'd told 
him off, dug in their claws and not let go, things would 
have worked out differently. 

After all, they were just bullshitting around. 
"Bui for whatever reason, doesn’t that mean we're all 
hot about Riki in one way or another?” 

Strangely enough, without pretension or self- 
consciousness, this proposition carried the day. And so 
it was logical to ask: ' But what's with him now? He’s 
always getting shit-faced on stout with that half-stoned 
look in his eyes.” 

The air of disappointment was doubly so. Even 
fully aware that this was an irrational reaction, the 
feelings festered like slow poison and tore away ai their 
hearts of darkness. 

“Always giving us these looks like we aren't 
welcome in his presence any more ” 

Meant to be the final word but smacking of so 
much regret that they came across as a bunch of sad 
sacks, forever dragging the anchor of the past around 
with them. 

“That being the case, we keep riding him until 
he can't ignore us any more.” 

That being the case, they should call his bluff - , 
get in his face, and keep at it until the bitter end. That’s 
what Luke was saying. Such an approach was far more 
attractive than inconclusively dragging things out like 
this forever. 










126 


Ai No Kusabi - The Space Between 


Sid and Norris glared unblinking at Luke. 

Were they so taken aback by his arrogant 
speechifying that they'd lost any will to take him down 
a few notches? No. The two of them simply had nothing 
to say. Voicing his incomprehensible anger towards Riki. 
Luke seemed to be speaking for all of them, and they fell 
no need to pile on at this point. 

The feelings of superiority and self-satisfaction 
they had shared with Riki were coupled with an all-too- 
sudden sense of loss. An ineffable hunger and thirst 
replaced what they should have had in common after 
four years. Still, they knew they couldn’t go to the 
same extremes as Luke. Dumb with consternation, their 
rationality warped and refracted, the silence stagnated 
and the time passed for them like prisoners wasting 
away in solitary, in the heavy gloom it became hard to 
even breathe. 

The familiar sound of the door opening and 
closing suddenly disturbed the air. & 

They all gulped, their shoulders shrinking. As if 
by the sound of a gunshot, their eyes were drawn toward 
the doorway. 

“What? What’s going on?” Riki asked, pausing 
on the spot with a perplexed expression on his face 

But nobody opened his mouth, each in his own 
way awkwardly averting his eyes. 

“Where’s Guy?” 

Luke answered curtly. “He wasn't with you 
today? He did say something to the effect of having a 
prior engagement with somebody." 

Sid gave Luke a threatening look. Norris clucked 


















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Ai No Kusabi - The Space Between 


to himself as well, finally grasping why Luke had been 
talking up his plans for tonight. 

Ignoring the had vibe that the rest of them were 
filling the silence with, Riki said nothing himself as he 
sat down in his regular place. Luke held out a bottle of 
stout. “Want one?” 

Riki answered with a nod. He chewed on some 
tasteless bui solid food and washed it down, then brought 
the stout slowly to his lips. Rolling the stout back on 
his tongue, lie felt the particularly piercing bitterness 
stabbing like tiny needles, little by little working it 
towards the back of his throat. 

He’d gotten used to it by now. Riki took a deep 
breath and let it out, and then passed the bottle around. 
Norris shook his head. Well . that being the case . . . 
Riki’s gaze shifted encouragingly to Sid. 

“No thanks. I'm not in the mood tonight.” 

Luke smiled thinly. Whether a bitter or derisive 
smile, it was hard to tell. Riki made nothing o^ it. He 
shrugged and look another slug of the stout. 

Before long, his eyes began to steep with the 
watery, intoxicating haze. Stretching his languid limbs, 
a faint smile rose to his lips. Norris gulped despite 
himself, his eye opening wide. The sigh that spilled 
from Riki’s lips seemed to have an air of almost dejected 
wistfulness. The daydream that Norris imagined was so 

entrancing that it made his throat tremble. 

Riki had exposed to their eyes his frank and 
unguarded countenance. 

Ordinarily, overtaken by the waves of pleasure 
together, they would have overlooked this hidden side of 


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him. That, together with the absence of Guy the only 
person who could act as a check valve for Riki in these 
situations unexpectedly etched the vivid image on the 
backs of their retinas. 

Sid pressed his lips together and glued his eyes 
on Riki. as if to devour his entire being. A moment in 
which he grew r hesitant even to take the next breath. 
A momeni in which the euphoric desire to take and 
penetrate him— 

Within the strained silence, each of their breaths 
synchronizing with Riki’s pulse, pushing them higher 
and higher towards the edge of the abyss— 

But nothing happened that night. 

In the face of Sid and Norris’s unusual display of 
gallantry, Luke was forced to exercise a bit of prudence. 
Or perhaps more importantly, he was never given an 
opening in which to act. 

Even with the two of them awkwardly rushing 
alternately off to the John, overwhelmed by Riki’s aura, 

[ uke didn't bother to flash the thinnest of derisive smiles. 
But the hunger churning in his chest was so much worse 
than he imagined, and that realization scalded him to the 
core. 





Chapter 6 


The wind blowing in from the green belt beneath 
the deep blue sky grew cooler day by day. The sparkling 
sunlight staining the azure sky at this time of year was 
fresh and brilliant 

Ceres. One-fifty in the afternoon. 

The air car sprinted through the disorderly urban 
center like a snake's flickering tongue. The crowds 
turned as one as it sped by, briefly grazing their senses. 
The tail lights restlessly flicked on and off as the vehicle 
bobbed and weaved along the avenues, as if further 
advertising what a curious sight it was. 

The elegance of the high-quality silver body 
was obvious at a glance. Not a smudge or stain 
clouded the metal’s surface. While compact in size, the 
functional aesthetics of the streamlined body indicated 
an extraordinary efficiency. 

This mouth-watering gem that slum dwellers 
were so rarely granted the opportunity to lay eyes 
on roared down the main street, scattering the trash 
strewn along the pavement, swirling the dust into small 
whirlwinds. 

Right at the building, lelt at the intersection. 

Onlookers gaped with surprise. They couldn’t 
take their eyes off it. 

Having seemingly entertained itself to its 
own satisfaction, and as if iinally satisfied with its 





132 


Ai No Kusabi The Space Between 


performance, the air car finally downshifted. 

“Who in the world was this?” they all wondered. 
Flying this outrageous, utterly out-of-place thing in 
here? 

Rasing its way through the inquisitive clamor, 
ihe air car slipped down to the ground and stopped. With 
the greatest of grace, and without the slightest squeak or 
complaint, the door opposite opened with a soft whoosh. 
The bustling crowds stilled and held their collective 
breath in anticipation as the lithe figure of a man alighted 
from the car. Seeing his face, a greater stir arose. 

There stood a refined and stylish Kirie, almost 
beyond recognition. 

His resplendent,' custom-tailored outfit 
practically glowed on his slender frame. His chest was 
bared just enough to reveal a golden chain. The bracelet 
on his left wrist cast off a unique and glittering light as 
if it was part of the set. To all knowing eyes this was no 
knock-a(T ornamentation. 

People gasped despite themselves, exhaling 
sighs of envy. The accompanying looks of intense 
jealousy achieved an equal if not greater weight, 
gradually coiling around him like barbed and clinging 
vines. 

However, Kirie’s expression did not change. 
Parking his ride mid-air with the remote control in his 
hand, he set off at a gait meant to brash off the eyes 
following him, and turned left at the first intersection. 

At the end of that street was an old, run-down 
building, fie rode to the fifth floor on the old-style 
elevator, crossing elevated corridors into the heart of the 


STRANGER 


133 


structure. This w as Laura, the backup safe house used by 
Riki and the rest of the gang. 

Kirie slowly approached the dark green door and 
stopped there. Now. for the first time, a smile creased his 
lips. It was unlikely that this sudden smile was prompted 
by the thought of seeing his old mates again after such a 
long time, however. 

There was a small panel on the wall to the left, 
and with a practiced hand Kirie entered the password. 
The door slid open as if beckoning him onto the stage. 

Luke's frank, sarcastic voice met him almost at 
once. “Geez, I thought it was some lucking aristocrat 
making all that racket.” 

The product of his little public performance 
earlier. Or perhaps Luke meant to put him his place. The 
newcomer was always the low man on the totem pole. 

“You certainly cleaned yourself up. Made 
yourself twice the man you used to be," 

"Yeah, yeah. You've turned yourself into a 
regular light show." 

The scales had fallen from their eyes and they 
were finally seeing Kirie in his true, natural brilliance. 
Yet they didn't seem the slightest bit disturbed by 
this transformation. It almost seemed as if they were 
trying to pull one over on him. Kirie fell a prick of 
disappointment in his heart. 

Still he responded. "Hey, just the same-old. 
same-old. But as long as you’re asking so nicely 

The same old Kirie. incapable of hiding his 
know-it-all attitude. He was dressed to the nines and his 
arrogance wasn’t far behind. Or perhaps he was putting 




134 


Ai No Kusabi The Space Between 


on airs deliberately. In any case, the sense of superiority 
Kirie was lording over ihem was hard to ignore. 

“You’ve certainly outdone yourself, Kirie,” Guy 
mumbled under his breath, a forced smile on his lips. 
“But don’t fly too close to the sun.” 

A beat, and Riki spat out in a low voice, "l ie’s 
still a punk kid.” 

"Hey, hey. consider things from his point 
of view, f I is triumphant return! Let him hitch up his 
britches and do a little strutting around.’’ 

Still, as soon as he’d shown his face for the first 
time in a long time, Riki was there, uncoiling his ill 
humor in his face. 

Just following in your footsteps, hasten But that 
was the kind of verbal hand grenade only Guy would 
dare throw back at him. 

"Heh. still getting your rocks off on that crap 
stout? I'll gift you some vintage Vartan next time,” 

"Really? Wow, sounds like you're really in the 
money. I didn’t know selling out your mates to those 
android assholes paid so well.” 

Kirie burned inside. But instead of pitching a fit 
like he used to, lie grinned instead. "Why not give it a try 
then? I ’ll make the introductions if you like.” 

“Sure. And when I get to the end of my rope I’ll 
give you a holler. For the time being. I’ll take the Vartan. 
A bottle or two. But why be so stingy? How about the 
whole fucking case, your lordship?” 

"Fine, fine. Leave everything to me. More than 
enough to drink yourself into the gutter of your choosing. 
Just try and make sure you don’t expire there.” 


STRANGER 


135 


The prickly back and forth banter was throwing 
off sparks that threatened to burst into an inferno, 
and this time Norris jumped in. "Naw, whatever you 
can spring for, that’s fine. The Vartan don't mean shit 
compared to dealing with Jeeks and his runts. They blew 
Henna’s crib to kingdom come. It’s getting totally out of 
control.” 

This time, cracking wise, Kirie unwisely scoffed 
at their timidity. "Crying yourself to sleep at night? Man, 
what a shame. Bison’s sure got their tails tucked fimtly 
between their legs.” 

Silence felt like a heavy curtain. Kirie didn’t 
know the meaning of that silence. The troubles they’d 
seen. The clashes and the discord all playing out there on 
the razor’s edge. Which is why Kirie read their words all 
wrong. 

"Well, if you like. I ll bust ’em one in the 
mouth,” he said, with every ounce of his insufferable 
self-confidence. “Anybody with no stomach for the light, 
just give me a nod and I’ll take your place.” Devoid of 
self-consciousness, he dug himself in deeper. 

"Hey, that’s awful good of you.” Norris said 
dryly, “Yeah, enough of empty talk. Nothing’s holding 
this kid back.” 

Thai was hardly the opinion of the consensus, 
but it may have been sufficient to speak to the tangle 
of complexities in their hearts. No sarcasm or making 
fun. It was enough to make Kirie feel all the more 
discomfited. 

"What? You think I'm tooting my own horn 
here?” He forced an upward inflection into the heart of 




136 


Ai No Kusabi - The Space Between 


the question. “i could cut those Jeeks brats down to size 
without breaking a sweat." Completely caught up in the 
delusion and forgetting where he was. Kirie scrunched 
his beautiful brows in a show of defiance. 

“Well—you certainly do have a mouth on you. 
but I'll believe it when 1 see it. It’s not easy to take little 
kids with big heads telling tall tales seriously. Though 
we can't begrudge the fact that for a bunch of weaklings 
burning through our assets and clinging to past glories, 
everybody has been so nice to give us far more credit 
than we deserve." 

Luke and Sid exchanged glances—not so much 
agreeing with what Norris had said as the way he said 
it and chuckled, the laughter rumbling up from the 
back of their throats. 

Kirie bit his lip. He got the feeling that he 
being knocked down another peg or two, his feathers 
deliberately ruffled. It pissed him olT. For the first time 
he realized that what it meant to make a name for himself 
in the slums. If he backed down now he would come out 
the worse for the exchange, so he ground his back teeth 
together and spoke. “Fine. Soon enough you'll see what 
I’m made of. I'm a man to be taken seriously.” 

I Ic'd dared stand his ground, and as he glowered 
back at them he fell himself rising to the occasion. I'm 
making a name for myself and living up to it! But first 
he had a more pressing concern: to tear down the wall 
standing in his way. It was only then that Kirie recalled 
why he had come all the way down here in the first 
place. 

He collected himself, took a deep breath, and 


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137 


walked determinedly up to Guy. “So, you reconsider our 
conversation from the other day’?" 

Ignoring Riki, Kirie sal down and looked 
Guy right in the eye. He betrayed not a dicker of the 
antipathy and revulsion he'd been feeling until a minute 
ago and effortlessly switched gears. The transformation 
impressed even Guy. But that had nothing to do with 
this. 

Guy spoke bluntly, showing not the slightest 
prevarication. “If you're saying what l think you’re 
saying, the answer is still no." 

Kirie clucked his tongue despite himself. Now 
they were only adding insult to injury. “That’s why 1 
asked if you’d had any second thoughts.” Uncontrollable 
feelings of irritation barbed his tongue and his voice 
grew sharper. 

“You're a persistent little bugger, Kirie." 

“But why?" Kirie pressed angrily. “Why throw 
away a golden opportunity? Don't you get it? They're 
the elites. They looked you over and gave you the 
thumbs up. Why turn it down? It's such a waste.” 

He spoke without bitterness or sarcasm, and 
not once did he attempt to appeal to Guy’s self-respect. 
Rather, Kirie treated the rejection as a personal loss. 
If he'd been able to pull it off, just a ray of that glory 
falling on him would have sufficed. 

Yet the openness of the expression on his face 
budged Guy not a inch. “You're trying too hard to make 
the sale and I'm not buying it," Guy said, his tone of 
voice unchanging. 

“But I'm telling you, this is on the up-and- 









138 


Ai No Kusabi '1 he Space Between 


up!" Kirie sighed as if in enormous disbelief. "You’re 
thinking about this way too much." 

“Some Tanagi ira Blondy types want to make pets 
of us mongrels?" Guy hissed between his teeth. “What 
kind of a bloody joke is that?" Next to him Riki’s head 
suddenly shot up. "Besides," Guy continued, “You’re 
telling me you came all the way here to single me out? 
I find that the hardest to believe. I’m an ordinary bloke, 
no matter how rosy the spectacles you’re wearing. You 
don’t think somebody got me confused with a higher 
class of chap?" 

“Why do you have to be so negative about 
all this? Just because we’re mongrels from the slums 
doesn’t mean we have to livedike this. I’m telling you, 
no mistake! 1 heard it loud and clear: the guy who runs 
with that black-haired man. At the time, you were with 
Riki, so it’s gotta be you, right?" 

So Us gotta be me, Guy repeated to himself. His 
hair was charcoal gray. It was obvious that the Blondy 
was not drawn to any particularity of Guy’s person. With 
the black-haired man. If that indeed was what he'd said, 
then it was Riki he'd been looking at all along. 

But why? Why single out himself and not Riki? 
Kirie insisted this deal was on the “up and up." Perhaps 
lie was right. When it came to Blondies from Tanagura, 
he had no idea what got their rocks off. Like Kirie said, 
big chances like this simply didn’t present themselves on 
a daily basis. When a choice cut of meal got tossed out 
like this, common sense told him to pounce on it. 

But he’d been with Riki ever since their time 
at Guardian and was able to look objectively and 


STRANGER 


139 


unabashedly at himself in the coolest of lerms. Permit 
himself to be driven by the desires in front of his eyes 
and the consequences that followed would exact a steep 
price. He could see the truth of that maxim everywhere 
he looked. If he harbored even the slightest of doubts, 
the best course of action was no! to plunge recklessly 
ahead. That instinct was crucial. 

Kirie was dangling the glittering lure in front of 
his eyes. Don t be the coward who didn f go for the brass 
ring. But Guy had no intent of violating the basic rules 
of his life at this point. 

“Let’s think through this again. Okay? A sweet 
otfer like this—there isn’t a fool alive who wouldn’t 
jump at it.” 

But Riki had heard enough of Kirie’s spiel. 
“Hey!" he interrupted, leaning forward and grabbing his 
arm. 

Kirie frowned at him and shook his arm 
free. “What?" he growled, clearly annoyed by the 
interruption, 

“Is that Blondy the same bastard we saw at the 
Pet Auction?" 

“What if it is?" 

In that instant, like a blow to the back of head, 
the image of lason flashed through Riki's mind. That 
cold, meaningful smile he'd seen in Mistral Park. A 
strange, frosty sense of panic rippled up his spine. He 
fell silent. 

Kirie glared back at him, all the resentment and 
bile pouring from his eyes. “The invitation wasn’t for 
you," he said with sneering laughter. 





140 


Ai No Kusabi - The Space Between 


But Riki paid no mind to tCirie’s boorish 
attempts at ridicule. His silent contempt was focused 
on one person and one person alone. On the image of 
that Adonis in all his terrible and sagacious beauty. On 
lason. 


That day, the safe house used by Jeeks and his 
gang was hit by a tear gas bomb. Amidst the screams and 
angry roars, enveloped by the acrid, stinging, choking 
clouds of white smoke, the youngsters stumbled out of 
the building in ones and twos. 

The response from the gawkers and onlookers to 
their cries for help was cold and indifferent. 

No, far from indifferent 

The impudence and ferociousness of these 
punks had come back to bite them, and while not so bold 
as to applaud the perpetrators of the “crime” in public, 
more than a few satisfied spectators could be heard 
congratulating them under their breath. 

Serves ’em right. 

Unlike Bison, revered with equal parts of fear 
and admiration, the Jeeks gang had run relentlessly 
through its stores of good will, and became an object of 
general loathing of the slums. 

“What a pitiful sight." 

“Look at them, pissing their pants." 

“This is all it takes to turn them into a bunch of 

babies." 

Writhing on the ground, tears and mucous and 
snot pouring from their eyes and noses, they aroused not 
a shred of sympathy. Only greater disdain and abuse. 


STRANGER 


141 


This humiliation quickly made Jeeks the butt 
of jokes, and the naked glee again aroused in people 
feelings of discontent. Nobody knew who started it, but 
it began 10 be whispered about as il true: that as far as 
Jeeks was concerned— Maddox notwithstanding his 
natural enemy remained the ghost ot Bison and its 
equally ghostly reputation. 

An eye for an eye. 

This was the revenge of Bison. ! he rumors 
raced through the slums. The speculation spread like a 
mutating, contagious disease, growing and mutating as it 
reached into every nook and cranny, reaching pandemic 
proportions, 





Afterword 


Hello there. 1 don’t believe we’ve previously 
h ad the pleasure of meeting between the pages of a book 
from Crystal Publishers. Pm sorry about the long wait. 
Though Tm not sure what I'd be doing here il no one 
bad been waiting in the first place . . . but (hat s just the 

nervous and timid Yoshihara talking. 

And then there's this business of the first chapter 
of the hardcover version turning into an entire paperback 
volume. Probably a lot of you were surprised to discover 
this as well. Though perhaps not as surprised as those of 
you who weren’t even aware that one "Rieko Yoshihara’ 

had written a novel such as this. 

Well, a lot has changed in a mere decade. It 

seems like ancient history to me now. 

In the meantime, Sun Publishing Company has 
released a two volume, direct-to-video anime, along 
with a CD audio drama that covers the untold story of 
Riki anti lagan's three missing years. Participating in 
such interesting developments on completely different 
creative fronts has been quite an exciting experience 
for me. That’s why Pm so pleased that the novel is now 

being re-released in paperback format. 

After all is said and done, the best thing about 
the paperback publication is again beholding the 
magnificent illustrations by Katsumi Mtchihara. Thank 
you very much, Katsumi. In one way or another, the 






radical passions of that period of my life are beginning 
to bubble up again. 

To be sure, just because a certain series (the 
Hiromi-kun books) pul out by a certain publisher 
(Kadokawa) happens to be a young adult romance with 
no explicit sex doesn’t mean those feelings have grown 
stale. Far from it, though the physical body may grow 
older, wicked thoughts and earthly desires remain wilh 
us always. 

Back when this story first appeared in June 
Magazine, happily-ever-after young adult romances 
were noi its mainstay. The hot and heavy contents ol 
the magazine were apparent just from glancing at the 
illustrations. A foreboding'aura wafted from its pages. 
Honestly, l read it from cover to cover as if licking the 
cookie bowl clean. 

Perhaps that’s w r hy, to this day, I still have those 
issues in my possession. I'd say that pretty much sums 
up my opinions on the subject. 

I’ve made major revisions to the story since, 
but in terms of the contemporary BL genre I'd be very 
pleased if it imparts even a touch of that unique June 
flavor, because in so many ways that was my starting 
point. 

Well, then. Now that the first volume is out. I’m 
sure plenty of you are wishing to hurry me along to the 
next! Still, I’m very grateful we’ve been able to spend 
some leisurely time here together. 

Incidentally, along with the paperback, 
Kadokawa is releasing Hirombkun no Sat nan ("The 
Misfortunes of Hiromi-kun”) and the second installment 


of CD audio drama based on Ai no Kusabi. If the 
opportunity presents itself, be sure to check them out. 

On that note, 1 bid you all goodbye and good 
luck until next time. 

Rieko Yoshihara 
August 2001 





AI NO KUSABI 
THE SPACE BETWEEN 

Vol.2 

Destiny 


Spring 2008 

















The Mans upturned blue eyes were so unimaginably 
beautiful that they could make anybody tremble 
with awe. In this moment , however f they also 
glimmered with an icy fire—perhaps revealing 
the Jury oj his wounded pride, or rather , a 
manifestation of his uncontrollable obsession* 

C^res: a city without ethics or taboos, rilled by instincts and 
lusts. These are the slums—immutable, eternal, home to those 
poor, caged souls stricken with a perpetual melancholy 

After three years, Riki unexpectedly returns to 2 ’eres, but all 
is not well. The ^Charisma ' 1 of the slums is a changed man. 
Faced with growing suspicion that he’s lost his spark, and 
haunted by the memory of what happened during (hose three 
years away from the slums* Riki finds himself pulled into the 
escalating gang warfare as rivals attempt to wipe out his pack 
before they can regroup under their newly-returned leader. 
And then there is the frighteningly cold, regrettably familiar 
man he meets by chance one day: the beautiful lason Mink. 
What secrets lie behind the smile of that bewitching Blondy? 

Ri.ko Yoshibara*. classic yasi story tomes reimagioed 

since its original incarnation, revised slightly but sull as 
dark and relevant as ever. Ai No Kusabi remains Yoshihara’s 
exemplification of the vision of June, and is certain to enthrall 
those new to the series and well as long-time fans! 



junemafya.com 


NOVEL / DRAMA / ROMANCE 


US SB,95 


ISEN-10 1-56970-782-0 
ISBN-13 97B-1-56970-782-1 


50395 


781569 


707821